Jun 29, 2007

Fighting the Forces of e-Darkness

Online auction site eBay has made public the details of a three-year long campaign to curb online fraud being perpetrated by criminals in Romania -- an effort that has resulted in several hundred arrests.

Matt Henley, a member of eBay's US-based Fraud Investigations Team, spoke about the campaign while taking part in a two-day workshop in Sydney with representatives of local law enforcement agencies.

Henley is currently in town to discuss the latest online fraud techniques with representatives from the Australian Federal Police, the High-Tech Crime Centre, the Australian Crime Commission, ACMA and all the State and Territory Police forces.

The e-commerce site's internal fraud team first took note of a higher than usual amount of fraudulent activity from Eastern Europe in 2005.

"A huge percentage of the fraud we were seeing was from Romania," Henley said.

While schemes varied, many of these criminals committed fraud after approaching eBay users that had narrowly lost an auction.

"The fraudster can see that a user that didn't win was prepared to spend AU$145 on a particular item," Henley explained. "They would then attempt to contact the user off the eBay platform to offer them a second-chance. The number one goal of these fraudsters was to pull users off of eBay -- away from our security cameras so to speak."

The fraudsters would first have to guess the e-mails of the losing bidders -- most commonly by combining their eBay username with popular Web-mail domains.

"It's very common that users have the same username for their eBay as their e-m

Jun 26, 2007

Dave Barry: One giant leap for frogkind

Get ready to dance naked in the streets, because scientists have finally done something that humanity has long dreamed about, but most of us thought would never happen within our lifetimes.

That's right: They have levitated a frog. I swear I am not making this up. According to an Associated Press article sent in by a number of alert readers, British and Dutch scientists ''have succeeded in floating a frog in air.'' They did this by using magnetism, which, as you recall from physics class, is a powerful force that causes certain items to be attracted to refrigerators. Magnetism is one of the Six Fundamental Forces of the Universe, with the other five being Gravity, Duct Tape, Whining, Remote Control and The Force That Pulls Dogs Toward The Groins Of Strangers.

The AP article states that the scientists levitated the frog by subjecting it to ''a magnetic field a million times stronger than that of the Earth.'' According to scientists, the frog ``showed no signs of distress after floating in the air inside a magnetic cylinder.''

I am not a trained scientist, but my reaction to that last statement is, and I quote -- ''Duh.'' I mean, of course the frog ''showed no signs of distress'': It's a frog. Frogs are not known for their ability to show emotions; they are limited to essentially one facial expression, very much like Jean-Claude Van Damme. What did these scientists expect the frog to do? Cry? Hop around on their computer keyboard and spell out the words, ``I am experiencing distress''?

No, we don't really know what the frog was feeling; this is why we should be skeptical about the scientists' claim, as reported in the AP story, that ''there is no reason'' why this same magnetic technique could not be used on ''larger creatures, even humans.'' Before we start exposing human beings to extremely powerful magnetic fields, we should conduct extensive laboratory tests on Richard Simmons. But if magnetic levitation really turns out to be safe, I think it could have some important ''real world'' applications:

1. Getting children out of bed on school mornings. Scientists calculate that the attraction between a child and his or her bed on a school morning can be up to 75 times as strong as mere gravity. Most parents try to overcome this attraction by pounding on the door and shouting ineffective threats, the most popular one being:

''You're going to be late for school!'' The problem with this threat is that it's based on the idiotic premise that the child wants to be in school and be forced to sit on a hard chair and figure out how many times 7 goes into 56; naturally, the child prefers the bed.

Think, parents, how much easier it would be if, at 6:30 a.m. on school mornings, you could simply press a button, thereby activating gigantic magnets under your child's bed that would cause the child to float upward, along with any frogs that happened to be in bed with the child.

Then, instead of wasting your time yelling, ''You're going to be late for school!'' you could waste your time yelling, ''Stop drawing with that marking pen on the ceiling!'' So perhaps this is not such a good use for magnetic levitation after all. Perhaps a better one would be:

2. Coping with people who ''save'' seats. I don't know about you, but it makes me nuts when I enter a self-service restaurant, airport gate area, movie theater, etc., and there are people ''saving'' seats -- sometimes lots of seats -- for people who are not there, and who sometimes do not ever actually show up, which does not stop the savers from vigilantly guarding their seats, often by placing items such as shopping bags on them. My feeling is, if an actual person was physically there and had to go to the bathroom or something, fine, you can ''save'' that person's seat until he or she returns; but if you're ''saving'' a seat for a hypothetical person who is not there, then the seat should go to real people who are there. The concept of ''saving'' seats should be restricted to junior high school, where ''frontsy-backsy'' is still considered a legal technique for butting into line.

So my idea is that public seating areas would be monitored via cameras; if a ''seat-saver'' was observed denying seats to real people, the appropriate magnets would be activated, and the seat-saver, along with the shopping bags, would vacate the ''saved'' seats, very much the way a Poseidon missile vacates a submarine. Granted, the magnetic field would also prevent everybody else from using the seats, but I think the overall effect would be worth it.

3. Improving the quality of medical care. I recently had my annual physical examination, which I get once every seven years, and when the nurse weighed me, I was shocked to discover how much stronger the Earth's gravitational pull has become since 1990. There should be magnets -- very powerful magnets -- under doctors' scales to compensate for the gravitational increase, much the way economists adjust dollar amounts for inflation.

I'm sure I could come up with other practical uses for magnetic human levitation, but I have to go. It's been an hour since lunch, and, as a resident of the Earth's magnetic field, I find myself powerfully attracted to the refrigerator.

Jun 25, 2007

Carl Mortished: Energy crisis 'cannot be solved by renewables'

THE world is blinding itself to the reality of its energy problems, ignoring the scale of growth in demand from developing countries and placing too much faith in renewable sources of power, according to two leaders of the global energy industry.
The chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell today calls for a “reality check”. Writing in The Times, Jeroen van der Veer takes issue with the widespread public opinion that green energy can replace fossil fuels. Shell’s chief gives warning that supplies of conventional oil and gas will struggle to keep pace with rising energy demand and he calls for greater investment in energy efficiency.

Instead of a great conversion to wind power and solar power, Mr van der Veer predicts, the world will be forced into greater use of coal and much higher CO2 emissions, “possibly to levels we deem unacceptable”. Alternative energy sources, such as renewables, will not fill the gap, says Mr van der Veer, who forecasts that even with major technological breakthroughs, renewables could account for only 30 per cent of energy supply by the middle of the century. “Contrary to public perceptions, renewable energy is not the silver bullet that will soon solve all our problems,” he writes.

Jun 20, 2007

The Paperless Office Lives!

Or you could say, even more old-fashioned brick-and-mortar libraries are destined to be turned into condos, thanks to Adobe's release today of its Digital Editions software, an application for reading and organizing electronic books, newspapers, magazines, and other publications. Not that I really believe paper books have become obsolete--and certainly not magazines--but Adobe sure wants you to buy into the concept. It began offering the software as a free download beginning this morning.

Jun 19, 2007

Matthew Broersma: Online Bank Security Worsens

Banks' online security is getting worse as they rush to offer services online, according to new research. This year's Annual Security Report from NTA Monitor, a security testing firm, found that 20 percent more security vulnerabilities turned up in the infrastructures of banks, building societies and other financial institutions compared with last year's report. The survey covers networks, applications and systems.

By comparison, a month ago NTA reported that the security of U.K. organizations in general improved year-on-year. Thirty-two percent of U.K. organizations tested had critical vulnerabilities that are widely known and exploited, compared to 61 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, financial organizations tested positive for an average of three more vulnerabilities in the 2007 survey, NTA said.

A common category was buffer overflows in Bind running on DNS servers, which could allow an attacker access to the server. Another common problem was expired SSL certificates, which force users to acknowledge that they know the certificate is invalid before they can access the site. NTA technical director Roy Hills said the increase in security problems is due to growing pressure on financial organizations to go online. "Whilst this extra accessibility is of benefit to many customers, at the same time it can increase the exposure to external attacks," he said in a statement.

Laurie Sullivan: Online music purchases cannibalize CD sales.

Global online downloads of single music tracks increased 89 percent to 795 million in 2006, but couldn’t compensate for declining CD sales, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, an industry association. Digital online music sales and sales for digital music on mobile phones account for about 10 percent of global sales or $2 billion last year, the IFPI said. By 2010, the industry group estimates digital music sales will contribute to roughly one-quarter of all music sales worldwide.

The figures come as the music industry is struggling to find creative ways to profit from the trend towards digital music distribution. Despite copyright concerns, band and music companies have been working with social network sites YouTube and News Corp.’s MySpace, as well as virtual worlds like Second Life to promote their tunes.

As a result available online music tracks doubled to four million in 2006, spurred on by MP3 players and accessories that let consumers plug iPods into car speakers, or software that comes with guitars that connect to computers helping consumers belt out their own tune and upload to social networking sites like Google’s YouTube.

Alex Zaharov-Reutt : ‘Australia Connected’ sounds pretty good – now what?

The Federal Government’s launch of ‘Australia Connected’ is meant to ensure ’99.9%’ of Australians get access to at least 12Mb broadband speeds one way or the other by June 30, 2009. With the Federal Government’s announcement that they have awarded the project to ‘broadband the bush’ to OPEL, a joint venture wholesale company between Optus and Elders, rural and regional users will finally get plugged into the national high-speed Internet backbone starting from September this year.

The plan involves $958 million of government funding, which will be matched by OPEL with a total of $917 million in cash and in-kind dollars. The Govt has been very keen to stress their $958 million contribution does not come from the $2 billion ‘Communications Fund’, and say that this separate fund will shortly be protected by legislation so the interest earnings providing ongoing funding to maintain the network, supposedly forever, and so that future governments of whatever persuasion will be unable to raid it to fund other projects.

In total, $1.875 billion is going towards to construction of a new national high speed wholesale network that will, according to the Govt, deliver a mix of fibre optic, ADSL2+ and WIMAX wireless broadband to rural and regional areas. The network will offer speeds of 12Mbps at prices between $35 and $60 per month June 30, ’09, with a total of 426 exchanges to be upgraded to ADSL 2+ starting September 2007, with 1361 ‘state of the art’ WIMAX also being built, all of which will, according to the government, deliver speeds “20–40 times faster than most people are on today, to almost 9.5 million premises including in areas such as Birdsville and Bedourie and the elimination of almost all broadband blackspots in areas including outer metropolitan Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane.”

Garden gnomes in snake-smuggling scandal

GARDEN gnomes may be well-known for their penchant for overseas travel and posing in front of famous landmarks.

Now some of them come with a reptilian travel companion.

Customs and quarantine officers have busted a reptile racket in which snakes and lizards were concealed in the hollow spaces of pottery figurines and garden gnomes.

A customs officer was startled on to discover two snakes and three lizards in a package sent from the UK to an address in Blacktown in Sydney's west on June 10, Customs said today.

Just a day later a second package concealing five snakes and five lizards inside pottery ornaments was intercepted during an X-ray.

The package also came from the UK and was headed to Wilberforce, northwest of Sydney.

The reptiles had to be euthanased because of quarantine concerns.

Customs national nanager for Investigations Richard Janecko said trafficking wildlife was serious

A million zombies threaten US national security

More than a million PCs under the control of spammers are threatening the US national security, its economy and its information infrastructure, according to the FBI.

The discovery was made by Operation Bot Roast, which is an initiative aimed at revealing the scale of the botnet problem and prosecuting those responsible. It is being carried out in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University, Microsoft and the International Botnet Task Force.

Botnets are collections of computers -- known as bots or zombies -- whose respective owners have no idea their PCs have been hijacked and are being used for identity theft, denial-of-service attacks and the transmission of malware and spam.

The FBI claims that botnets are a "growing threat to national security, the national information infrastructure, and the economy" in the US. The assistant director for the FBI's Cyber Division, James Finch, urged computer users last week to "protect themselves from botnets and the associated schemes by practising strong computer security habits".

The organisations participating in Operation Bot Roast are in the process of trying to contact victims to inform them of their computers' compromised status.

As part of Operation Bot Roast, American authorities in May arrested Robert Alan Soloway, the alleged "Seattle Spammer". Soloway stands accused of using a large botnet to circulate tens of millions of spam e-mails. Despite federal laws against such behaviour, the US remains the most prolific originator of spam in the world.

Jun 18, 2007

Giant Frogs Raid Toilets, Power Lines

People scream after finding huge frogs in their toilet bowls. Electrified amphibians cause multiple blackouts. Frogs hitch rides in cars, later surprising unsuspecting drivers.

It's all real, and, according to the University of Florida, the invasive Cuban tree frog is responsible for the chaos. The species has colonized over half of Florida and is now moving in on the rest of the state. The 6-inch-long frogs, which dwarf native tiny tree frogs, have also been found in Georgia, South Carolina, California, Hawaii and Canada.

UF amphibian expert Steve Johnson told Discovery News that the frog "toilet surprise" has startled himself, numerous students and several friends.
"They come in through bathroom PVC vent pipes on the roof," Johnson explained. "Once they find moisture, they may just keep moving down until they make their way to the toilet, one of their favorite indoor destinations."

He added that the creamy white to light brown frogs can also clog up sinks. The bathroom attraction has to do with the frogs' preference for "confined, cozy" spaces, such as pipes.

The frogs first became established in Florida in the early 20th century, after the amphibians stowed away on boats. On land, almost any form of transportation can carry them from one region to another.

Johnson said Florida, California and Hawaii remain particularly vulnerable to such invasions.

The states contain numerous ports of entry. The problem also worsens, thanks to a "booming" pet trade. Johnson said he has seen Cuban tree frogs for sale at major U.S. pet store chains, despite the fact that the species releases a mild toxin from its skin that can burn the eyes of handlers.

When people tire of their exotic pet, they may then release it into the wild, thus adding to the invasive species problem.

The frogs then thrive in Florida's wetlands, not to mention the year-round warm conditions.

William Atkins : ScramJet at Mach 10

Defense scientists from Australia’s Defense Science and Technology Organization and United State’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) developed the scramjet and tested it using an conventional rocket that lifts it into the thin atmosphere high above commercial airplane traffic before the scramjet engine is ignited. The hypersonic test rocket was flown above the Woomera range in outback South Australia. It lifted off for its flight just after noon ACST (Australia Central Standard Time). Its peak altitude was 330 miles (530 kilometers).

Reaching Mach 10, or about 11,000 kilometers (6,835 miles) per hour, was a great success for the scientists whose goal is to develop a hypersonic airplane in the near future for space travel and for travel about the Earth. This flight is considered the first time that a combustion engine has achieved Mach 10.

Mach (or Mach speed) is the speed of an object as a multiple of the speed of sound. For example, Mach 2 is the speed a vehicle is going when traveling at twice the speed of sound. In the medium of air, the speed of sound is approximately 1,129 feet (344 meters) per second. A scramjet (short for “supersonic combustion ramjet") is similar to a ramjet, except that the flow in the combustor is at supersonic speeds (or speeds exceeding the speed of sound).

A ramjet is a type of jet engine in which its fuel is burned in a duct with air compressed by the forward motion of the jet. A simple ramjet uses an intake for air, a combustor for fuel, and a nozzle for exhaust. Scramjet engines are theorized to be capable of reaching between Mach 12 and Mach 24. The fastest conventional air-breathing vehicles, such as Lockheed's SR-71 ("Blackbird"), travel at about Mach 3.2. NASA Apollo rockets went faster than Mach 30.

Jun 16, 2007

Tracy Staedter: Water From Air, Low-Tech Style

Leaves and spiderwebs beaded with dew have inspired a low-tech solution for collecting fresh water.

WatAir, an inverted pyramid made from elastic canvas, recycled polycarbonate, metal or glass, can reap dozens of liters of water a day from the air. The inexpensive solution could help bring clean drinking water to people in remote or polluted areas.

"The design has minimal special demands. It is low-tech and low-cost, and in fact can be even produced with local means," said Joseph Cory, a PhD candidate at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and an architect at Haifa, Israel-based Geotectura Studio.

Cory and colleague Eyal Malka of Malka Architects recently won first place for the invention in the "drawing water challenge" sponsored by WaterAid, an international nonprofit dedicated to providing safe domestic water to poor nations, and U.K.-based Arup, a firm specializing in sustainable designs.

Cory and Malka were inspired by the passive way dew gathers on leaves, spider webs, even on sleeping bags and tents. They designed a four-sided structure shaped like an inverted pyramid, with each panel about 10 feet tall.

At night, dew drops bead up on both the tops and undersides of the panels. Because the dew collecting on top may contain dust, dirt or insects, that water could be used for irrigation. But dew from the underside is drinkable.

Jun 15, 2007

Google hosts Linux summit

THE high priests of open source software have congregated at Google's headquarters to debate the future of the movement and face down recent patent threats by Microsoft.

The Linux movement has long favoured the penguin as its mascot
Leading names of Linux, the world's biggest grassroots software phenomenon, are spending three days to Friday debating whether an increasingly commercial open source community should fight or ignore the world's largest software maker.

Dressed in the alternative software movement's casual uniform of T-shirts and jeans, the group is coming to grips with internal divisions that sap at its success - Linux is now used to power desktop computers, major web sites, mobile phones - since rival factions often create very similar products.

But as many of the world's top tech companies and corporate customers demand ever more from Linux, open source devotees still fight among themselves with the fervour of a tiny monastic order seeking to root out theological error in their midst.

"Guys: Be seekers of truth, not finders of contradiction," Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, organiser of the event, only half-jokingly told the 150 attendees of what is billed their "Collaboration Summit."

Linux is the best-known variant of so-called open source software - software that is freely available to the public to be used, revised and shared. Linux suppliers earn money selling improvements and technical services. By contrast, Microsoft charges for software and opposes freely sharing its code.

Shock: PCs waste electricity

An awful lot of juice meant to power PCs never gets used so tech companies -- including Google and Intel -- have teamed up to try and make PCs and servers run more efficiently.

Google, Intel and a host of PC and component companies on Tuesday unfurled the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, an effort to increase energy efficiency in PCs.

At the heart of the initiative is a push to get PC makers and consumers to adopt more efficient power supplies and voltage regulators. These two components, working together, convert AC power from a wall socket to 12-volt DC power that a computer uses.

Roughly 50 percent of the power delivered from a wall socket to a PC never actually performs any work, according to Urs Hölzle, Google fellow and senior vice president of operations. Half the energy gets converted to heat or is dissipated in some other manner in the AC-to-DC conversion. Around 30 percent of the power delivered to the average server gets lost, he added. The power in both cases is lost before any work is accomplished by a computer: later, even more energy is lost by PCs sitting idle, or as heat dissipated by other components.

By adopting more energy-efficient components, PCs and servers can utilize 90 percent or more of the electricity delivered to them. Google's own servers, in fact, are already 90 to 93 percent efficient.

"This is not a technology problem. We have power supplies with 90 percent efficiency shipping today," Hölzle said.

The problem is cost, said Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president of the Digital Enterprise Group at Intel. Making a PC more power efficient in this manner adds about US$20 to its retail cost, and it adds about US$30 to the cost of a server.

Part of the initiative is to figure out ways to eliminate this price difference, Gelsinger added. Some utilities, such as California's Pacific Gas and Electric are toying with giving consumers rebates for buying energy-efficient PCs. Volume production will eventually eliminate any additional costs, he said. Chances are, energy-efficient PCs and servers will take off in Japan, Europe and North America first, and later in more cost-conscious markets like China.

Jun 14, 2007

Tomio Geron: eBay drops Google

Internet auctioneer eBay has pulled its U.S. search ads from Google, a stunning move by one of the search leader’s largest AdWords clients and the latest sign that Google’s outsized ambitions are creating some unexpected conflicts.

Relations between the two companies, which have for years worked together, began to sour with the launch last year of Google Checkout, an online payment system that competes with eBay’s popular PayPal.

Tensions came to a head this week after Google planned a bizarre “Let Freedom Ring” party on the same night as eBay Live, the auction site’s premier annual event for sellers.

Google’s gambit backfired when eBay abruptly pulled its search ads from Google’s U.S. search engine earlier this week. eBay is one of the largest buyers of Google ads and a standard Google search for “iPod,” “shoes,” or “DVDs” normally pulls up paid links to eBay. But as of Wednesday, those links had vanished, though they did appear on rival Yahoo.

Jun 13, 2007

UK city taps thin clients and mainframes for greener computing

The BBC is reporting that concern over "Cyberwarming" is growing in the UK. Citing a figure that suggests that IT equipment pumps out 35 million metric tons of carbon a year, the Manchester City Council will be joining private ventures to form a Green Shift alliance to bring greater efficiency to the IT market. Their plans, however, read as if they aimed for environmental friendliness by recycling marketing materials issued by Sun and Oracle in the mid-90s.

Currently, there is no Green Shift web site, and no material on the Manchester City Council site. The only description available of the program comes in the form of a call for partners issued by the Council in advance of applying for European Union funding.

The proposal makes a twofold argument regarding current and future computing technology, and the place of energy efficiency within them. In terms of a typical user, the proposal's authors argue that a full-blown PC is overkill for their needs, which typically involve e-mail, light document editing, and web browsing. For those users, the PC is a waste of energy, and a small, dumb, but energy-efficient terminal (much like Oracle's network computer of yore) would readily fulfill their needs. This would shift the heavy lifting to a data center, where energy-efficient technology would be easier to implement and benefit from economies of scale.

On the other end of the computing spectrum, the proposal envisions small, embedded devices becoming increasingly sophisticated and capable of basic interactions with other devices through RFID signals and other wireless technology. For these devices, the expectation is that advances in communications power will not be accompanied by advances in processing power, leaving them incapable of much beyond announcing their presence and status. The integration and evaluation of this information would need to be relegated to a more sophisticated device, which the proposal envisions as residing in the same central data center.

There is a lot to be skeptical about in this proposal. Although it has become clear that many aspects of computing are energy inefficient, the industry's aggressive push into performance-per-watt marketing suggests that they've caught on to this concern. As more efficient PCs make their way onto the market, its doubtful that individual households would be able to see any major financial benefit from the energy savings gained by shifting to a dumb terminal. Since these economic incentives were expected to be the main motivator for the green shift, the whole foundation for the proposal seems improbable.

Meanwhile, it's not clear that these terminals would actually have the horsepower to run rich network applications. Current iterations of apps from companies like Google seem to require a reasonable amount of heavy lifting from the machine they're running on. Meanwhile, the security and privacy concerns associated with dumping all of a user's data on a central machine is staggering, and unlikely to appeal to a public that's constantly warned not to share personal information.

Overall, the PC market seems to have evolved to where it is based largely on meeting the desires of its customers, while competing efforts to provide simplified network machines have yet to gain any traction. With the rise of PDAs and smartphones plus the increase in laptop sales, it seems that an evolution towards energy-efficient devices is occurring without government intervention. Efforts such as Green Shift appear misguided, in that government money is likely to be more helpful if directed towards encouraging this evolution by setting and promoting efficiency standards

Major tech firms launch war on energy-inefficient

Intel, Google, Dell, HP, IBM, Microsoft, and Lenovo have declared a war on inefficient PCs. The group has joined forces with the World Wildlife Fund and the US Environmental Protection Agency today to convince consumers, businesses, and manufacturers to use power more efficiently. They claim that more than half the energy used by PCs is wasted as heat; with parts that cost only a few dollars more per machine, that energy use can be slashed by up to 80 percent.

The Climate Savers Computing Initiative is nothing if not ambitious in its goals. Pat Gelsinger, a senior VP at Intel, says that "by 2010, the Climate Savers Computing Initiative will cut greenhouse gas emissions in an amount equal to removing more than 11 million cars from the road or shutting down 20 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants—a significant step in reducing the emissions affecting our planet."

The group is targeting the AC/DC converters in computer power supplies, one of the most notorious culprits when it comes to wasting energy. The initiative also encourages consumers and business users to enable the power-saving features of their machines (like "sleep" and "hibernate" modes), which can reduce energy consumption by 60 percent alone.

Anticipating objections to any scheme that raises the price of PCs, the group argues that any increased cost will pay for itself over time. "For example," says their web site, "a savings of just 20–30 watts in power consumption translates to a savings of $7.20 per year in direct energy costs at a price of $0.12/kWh for electricity. In an air-conditioned home, the total savings increases to approximately $10/year, which means the high-efficiency system will pay for itself in 2-3 years. Systems that remain turned on all the time typically pay for themselves within the first year of use."

Google goes solar

Google's commitment to "green" means that the company sources carpet and sofas made without PVC, paints without volatile organic compounds, and cafeteria food from local growers. It's not surprising, then, that they would roll out the largest commercial solar deployment in the US—a 1.6MW installation that covers most of the buildings at Google's campus and extends even to shaded parking spaces. At the ETech conference in San Diego this week, Google's Anthony Ravitz explained how Google did it, and why.
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The move to solar made sense for Google, and not just "hippie Gaia-loving" sense. Ravitz said that Google will earn its investment back in 7.5 years, after which it will continue to enjoy inexpensive power for decades. With the company sprawled across a large campus of many low buildings, roof space was easily available. Solar also has the unique property of pumping out more energy when power is the most expensive—peak afternoon hours. When air conditioners across California kick into action on sunny days, Google generates the most power.

It's still an expensive tech to install (though prices are dropping). Ravitz wouldn't give an exact figure for the project, but did say that it was only doable thanks to subsidies from local utility PG&E and a generous federal tax credit.

9,212 Sharp photovoltaic modules now cover the rooftops of the Googleplex, each one capable of pumping out 208W of DC power in full sun. To gain even more solar surface area, Google installed solar panels as "shades" over several of its parking lots, keeping cars cool and generating power at the same time. The installation can generate 30 percent of Google's peak demand power, or enough to light about 1,000 California homes.

The solar modules are wired in series, 14 to each circuit, and their output is sent to 10 SatCon inverters. The inverters transform the DC power to utility-grade AC, and are 96 percent efficient at installation (efficiency drops each year that they are in operation). The inverters are then tied into Google's own power systems and the general electrical grid. The system is set up for "net metering," which means that any excess power generated by the panels is pumped back into the state grid and Google receives a credit for that power.

It's a textbook example of the convergence of business and environmental concerns, and Ravitz hopes that Google's example will inspire other firms to explore alternative energy sources. It seems to have helped: an even bigger 1.9MW installation is going in just down the road.

Jun 12, 2007

Children with autism get day in court

The parents of 12-year-old Michelle Cedillo asked a federal court Monday to find that their child's autism was caused by common childhood vaccines, a precedent-setting case that could pave the way for thousands of autistic children to receive compensation from a government fund set up to help people injured by the shots.

Wearing noise-canceling headphones, Michelle, of Yuma, Ariz., was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair at the start of the proceedings before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. She stayed only a short time.

Her parents, Theresa and Michael Cedillo, allege a preservative called thimerosal that had been used in vaccines weakened their daughter's immune system and prevented her body from clearing the measles virus after she was immunized for the disease at age 15 months.

Today, Michelle suffers from a litany of health problems, including severe autism, inflammatory bowel disease, glaucoma and epilepsy.

"We hope to find out what happened and hopefully get the help she needs," said Theresa Cedillo, who takes care of her daughter full time at home.

Special Master George Hastings Jr. thanked the family for allowing theirs to be the first of nine test cases that will help guide the resolution of some of the nearly 5,000 similar claims lodged with the government.

"Clearly the story of Michelle's life is a tragic one," Hastings said in pledging to listen carefully to the evidence presented during the three-week hearing.

The burden of proof is easier than in a traditional court. Plaintiffs only have to prove that a link between autism and the shots is more likely than not, based on a preponderance of evidence.

Large scientific studies have found no association between autism and vaccines containing thimerosal.

But many parents say their children's symptoms did not show up until after their children received the vaccines, required by many states for admission to school.

"These are families who followed the rules. These are families who brought children in for vaccines. These are families who immunized their children," said the Cedillos' attorney, Thomas Powers.

Powers said that the science regarding a possible vaccine-autism link is in dispute.

Government attorney Vincent Matanoski dismissed much of what the plaintiffs are expected to present as conjecture or speculation.

"You'll find their hypotheses untested or, when tested, have been found false," Matanoski said.

Since 1999, more than 4,800 families have filed claims with the government alleging their children developed autism as a result of routine vaccinations. Most contend that a preservative called thimerosal is to blame for the impaired social interaction typical of the disorder.

The court is being asked to decide whether there is a link between autism and childhood vaccines. If it finds one exists, the families could be eligible for compensation under the Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund, a program established by Congress to ensure an adequate supply of vaccines by safeguarding manufacturers from lawsuits. Under the program, people injured by vaccines receive compensation through a special trust fund.

Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction. Those affected often have trouble communicating, and they exhibit unusual or severely limited activities and interests. Classic symptoms of mercury poisoning include anxiety, fatigue and abnormal irritation, as well as cognitive and motor dysfunction.

Monday's case addresses the theory that the cause of autism is the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in combination with other vaccines containing thimerosal. The preservative, about 50 percent mercury by weight, is no longer found in routine childhood vaccines but is used in some flu shots.

In July 1999, the U.S. government asked vaccine manufacturers to eliminate or reduce, as expeditiously as possible, the mercury content of their vaccines to avoid any possibility of infants who receive vaccines being exposed to more mercury than is recommended by federal guidelines.

Jun 11, 2007

Recyclers tackle e-waste mountain

SUSTAINABILITY Victoria's general manager of business, Jon Ward, put the matter succinctly: "Our parents grappled with the health impacts of garbage, we're grappling with the implications of e-waste … E-waste is the waste problem of our generation."

E-waste includes the discarded televisions, videos, DVD players, radios, stereos, computers and mobile phones that as a society we accumulate by the thousands every week.

A national survey on sustainability conducted by the states several years ago found that households owned 22 such devices each, on average. TVs were by far the most numerous equipment type, making up 11 per cent, but as a waste item, they came second to videos and DVD players.

The health issues surrounding this e-waste are big. "E-products do contain hazardous materials," Mr Ward said. "There are metals and other things in the electronics and boards, considerable quantities of lead. If you bury that in a landfill, it will be there forever."

Along with the waste, electronic products also contain a lot of metal, glass and plastics that can be recycled and reused. "There is a bigger picture — we have to move ourselves to a more sustainable footing where resources are kept in the system, rather than continually leaking out," Mr Ward said.

In 2004-05, Victoria recovered a record 5.4 million tonnes of waste, representing 55 per cent of the total solid waste, and 7 per cent more than in the previous year.

Construction and demolition waste — mostly concrete, brick and asphalt — accounted for the largest proportion of material (47 per cent) recovered for reprocessing.

Other contributors were metals (21 per cent), paper and cardboard (17 per cent), organics (11 per cent), and glass, plastic, rubber and textiles (4 per cent).

Noticeably tiny was the 2 per cent of recycled waste extracted from electronic goods. "Most are going into landfill," Mr Ward said. This percentage also matches the experience in the US, but as a US Environmental Protection Agency report noted: "If we continue to replace old or outdated electronic equipment at our current rate, that percentage will continue to grow."

One reason for the low recycle rate was that it is costly to extract useful material from a computer. "It costs money to dismantle it, (it's) labour intensive and costly," Mr Ward said. "The value of the materials you get out of that doesn't pay.

"If we get volume going through, the technologies will come. The costs become more mechanised, and the costs come down by a third of what they are at the moment."

Paul Levesque: The Five Biggest Customer Service Blunders

While howls of protest over poor customer service continue to fill the air, there remain some businesses that manage to consistently deliver superior customer service year in and year out. These are the places where turbo-charged employees pursue customer delight with a passion, places that ignite a flashpoint of contagious enthusiasm in employees and customers alike.

Foremost among the lessons to be learned from such flashpoint businesses are the blunders to avoid - those fatal mistakes that trip up just about everybody else.

First Blunder: making customer service a training issue. Businesses of all kinds invest huge amounts in training programs that do not - and simply cannot - work. The function of such training is to identify the behaviors workers are supposed to engage in, and then coax, bully, or legislate these behaviors into the workplace. At best, this is almost always a recipe for conduct that feels mechanized and insincere; at worst, it intensifies worker resentment and cynicism.

Instead of dictating what workers should be doing to delight customers, the better approach is to give workers opportunities to brainstorm their own ideas for delivering delight. Management's role then becomes to help employees implement these ideas, and to allow workers to savor the motivational effect of the positive feedback that ensues from delighted customers. This level of employee ownership and involvement is a key cultural characteristic of virtually all flashpoint businesses.

Second Blunder: blaming poor service on employee demotivation. Businesses looking for ways to motivate their workers are almost always looking in the wrong places. Employee cynicism is the direct product of an organization's visible preoccupation with self-interest above all else - a purely internal focus. The focus in flashpoint businesses is directed outward, toward the interests of customers and the community at large. This shift in cultural focus changes the way the business operates at all levels.

The reality in most business settings is that employees are demotivated because they can't deliver delight. The existing policies and procedures make it impossible. Instead of "fixing" their employees, flashpoint business set out to build a culture that unblocks them. Workers are encouraged to identify operational obstacles to customer delight, and participate in finding ways around them.

Third Blunder: using customer feedback to uncover what's wrong. Businesses often use surveys and other feedback mechanisms to get to the causes of customer problems and complaints. Employees come to dread these measurement and data-gathering efforts, since they so often lead to what feels like witch-hunts for employee scapegoats, formal exercises in finger-pointing and the assigning of blame. Flashpoint businesses use customer feedback very differently. In these organizations the object is to uncover everything that's going right. Managers are forever on the lookout for "hero stories" - examples of employees going the extra mile to deliver delight. Such feedback becomes the basis for ongoing recognition and celebration. Employees see themselves as winners on a winning team, because in their workplace there's always some new "win" being celebrated.

Fourth Blunder: reserving top recognition for splashy recoveries. It happens all the time: something goes terribly wrong in a customer order or transaction, and a dedicated employee goes to tremendous lengths to make things right. The delighted customer brings this employee's wonderful recovery to management's attention, and the employee receives special recognition for his or her efforts. This is a blunder?

It is when such recoveries are the primary - if not the only - catalysts for employee recognition. In such a culture, foul-ups become almost a good thing from the workers' point of view. By creating opportunities for splashy recoveries, foul-ups represent the only chance employees have to feel appreciated on the job. Attempts to correct operational problems won't win much support if employees see these problems as their only opportunity to shine.

Flashpoint businesses celebrate splashy recoveries, of course - but they're also careful to uncover and celebrate employee efforts to delight customers where no mistakes or problems were involved. This makes it easier to get workers participating in efforts to permanently eliminate the sources of problems at the systems level.

Fifth Blunder: competing on price. It's one of the most common (and most costly) mistakes in business. Price becomes the deciding factor in purchasing decisions only when everything else is equal - and everything else is almost never equal. Businesses compete on the perception of value, and this includes more than price. It's shaped by the total customer experience - and aspects such as "helpfulness," "friendliness," and "the personal touch" often give the competitive advantage to businesses that actually charge slightly more for their basic goods and services.

Those businesses that deliver a superior total experience from the inside out (that is, as a product of a strongly customer-focused culture) are typically those that enjoy a long-term competitive advantage - along with virtual immunity from the kinds of headaches that plague everybody else.

Top 10 ways to lose a customer

Judging from the enormous response I had last month from my blog entry on customer service, its clear the issues touches nerves. And reading through the responses, it seemed time to look at how businesses go about losing customers. What are the best ways to lose customers?

Customer service consultant Paul Levesque identifies The Five Biggest Customer Service Blunders of All Time in the CEO Refresher online journal: putting too much focus on training, blaming poor service on demotivated employees, using customer feedback for witch hunts and scapegoating, using recovery stories for when things go wrong as the only means of recognising employees and competing on price.

Not bad. But reading through your responses a few weeks back, the problems seem to go far deeper than that. So based on some of your responses, here's my list of the Top 10 ways to lose a customer:

1. Refuse to help when the customer is not happy with the product or service.

2. Ignore customers when they are standing there and it's obvious they need some attention. Better still, make sure you keep talking to your friend on the next register.

3. Push customers into buying stuff they don't need.

4. Lie.

5. Be rude and talk down to them. Do your best to make them feel like idiots.

6. Make sure you never have important items on your shelves.

7. Have only one or two people serving at peak times.

8. Display one price on the item, then charge a higher one.

9. Make sure your staff doesn't know how to do a simple transaction, like a lay-by.

10. Don't return phone calls or emails.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Are there any to add?

Jun 4, 2007

Israeli printing technology could deliver 1,000 pages a minute

Imagine a bookstore that prints your purchases while you settle the bill or a personalized newspaper that contains only the news you want to read. Such expedient printing may soon become a reality using a new Israeli technology that will enable printing 1,000 pages a minute at affordable prices.

Two researchers from The College of Judea and Samaria - Moshe and Nissim Einat - have developed a revolutionary printing technique called Jetrix, which enables simultaneous high- speed printing of an entire page of text. The technology combines printing and Liquid Crystal Technology (LCD) methods to make a page-sized printing array that emits ink instead of light.

"We are reducing the limitations of printing heads," explains Moshe Einat, senior lecturer at the college's Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

Einat's inspiration for rethinking print methods came from flat-screen display technologies. In the past display screens used a cathode ray tube to 'scan' the picture across the screen similar to the way a printer fills a page with text. With LCDs a screen-sized array of light emitting diodes creates the displayed picture and simultaneously changes to display each new image. Einat posed the question whether the same concept could not be applied to a printed page?

Ari Sharp: Mothers linked to children's obesity

PARENTING style is not to blame for obesity in children, but overweight youngsters are more likely to have overweight parents and come from single-parent households, according to medical research released today.

The study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, looked at a range of differences between a group of healthy weight, overweight and obese children aged seven to 13. There were 329 children involved in the study, conducted by Perth's Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

The researchers measured parents on a parenting scale that assessed their laxness, ability to control their temper and reliance on speech to control their children. They found this had no effect on a child's weight.

However, it found a "significant association" between the body mass index (BMI, a measure of weight compared to height) of children and the BMI of their parents, with overweight children likely to have overweight parents.

Single-parent families are more likely to have overweight children than two-parent families. The study found that single parents found it tougher to provide the right environment to keep their children fit.

"Children from single-parent families … may struggle to maintain a healthy weight in an obesogenic environment with restricted access to nutritious foods and adequate facilities for recreational exercise," lead researcher Lisa Gibson said. The high cost of fruit, vegetables and cereals was a possible cause.

Dr Gibson said research had shown that 80 per cent of children with a weight problem had a mother who was overweight or obese. "The role of the mother is really important," she said. "The best predictor of a child's weight is the mother's weight."

Her organisation is running a treatment program for overweight mothers, with the aim of keeping their children's weight under control. The pilot program, which has eight mothers participating, deals with changing diet and exercise as well as attitudes to body image and eating to satisfy emotional needs.

Unusually the research found that, among overweight and obese children, those with parents suffering depression were more likely to seek treatment for their children's weight.

"Our findings suggest that childhood obesity is not associated with adverse maternal or family characteristics such as maternal depression, negative life events, poor general family functioning or ineffective parenting style," the report said.

Last month separate research found that where a person lived had a big influence on weight. The study of more than 5000 people across Melbourne showed that even those on high incomes are more likely to be obese if they live in low socio-economic areas.

Jun 3, 2007

Adam Cresswell: Alert over sleep drug ignored

THE drug watchdog is again under fire after it admitted dropping a recommendation from its own experts that a "black box" warning be slapped on the controversial sleeping pill Stilnox, despite a flood of complaints over its sometimes bizarre and even potentially deadly effects.

Stilnox -- known generically as zolpidem -- has been linked to hundreds of sleep-walking incidents in which patients have been found cooking, eating and even driving while asleep. One man is thought to have fallen from a 12th-floor balcony after taking the drug.

About 250,000 Australians take Stilnox every year.

Although warnings on the drug were strengthened at the behest of the Therapeutic Goods Administration in April, the TGA has admitted its own advisory committees had recommended a black box warning be placed on the drug.

A black box warning is added to product information sheets and is an eye-catching signal to doctors and others that there are safety or other concerns. It is regarded as the strongest measure regulators can take, short of forcing the drug to be withdrawn.

An investigation by the Nine Network's Sunday program has turned up more disturbing incidents, including one where a woman took Stilnox and later tried to stab herself in the stomach. The program also interviewed the chairman of a TGA advisory body, the Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee, who conceded a black box warning had been suggested. That recommendation went to its parent committee, the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee, but went no further.

Biodiesel Boat Gives Up Record Bid

Earthrace, a wave-slicing speedboat fueled by recycled vegetable oil, has given up its bid to set a new record for circumnavigating the globe, a journey intended to raise awareness for alternative energy technologies.

The race, which began in Barbados on March 10, quickly evolved into a story of endurance, patience and resourcefulness as the all-volunteer team handled a series of technical problems and misfortunes, including running over a fishing boat in Guatemala that left one man dead.

The race clock was reset in San Diego on April 7, wiping out the delays tied to the accident investigation and engine work to repair damage sustained in the collision. The team had hoped to beat a 75-day record set in 1998 by a boat called Cable & Wireless.

By Wednesday night, however, about halfway thru the second bid, the race was called off, with the boat itself damaged and taking on water, project spokeswoman Devann Yata told Discovery News.

Richard Hemming: Better than HECS

School leaver Belinda O'Connor had big ambitions and was looking to get ahead quickly. Unlike most, at the age of 17 she knew exactly what she wanted to be: a graphic designer. More than this, even, she knew how she was going to do it. "I didn't plan to go to uni," O'Connor says. "I was of the opinion that you didn't need to go. I planned to go to a private provider or college and do a one- or twoyear course which was more skill-based."

Her final UAI mark was better than expected, leaving her wondering whether to take the opportunity to go to university. As with many her age, O'Connor felt the pressure to get a "university education" and pursued that option - but has ended up regretting that decision for a variety of reasons. She deferred her studies after getting a job as a graphic designer, preferring to gain practical experience.

"A lot of the stuff we did was pointless because it was very abstract and conceptual," she says. "After we got over the initial novelty of being at uni we discovered that the stuff we were doing we could not put in a portfolio for employers."

A big part of her resentment is her belief that she and her fellow students were being used as gofers by lecturers to collect and collate data for the students pursuing doctorates.

"We would take part in experiments that helped the lecturers' PhD students. It would end up being inane and repetitive because it was just to provide them with data. We would always be signing release forms." O'Connor is unrepentant about deferring her studies in favour of a job. "The amount of experience I've had in five months of full-time work completely dwarfs the experience I have from two years of uni."

O'Connor's is an extreme example but Radar spoke to five students who, for one reason or another, believe university wasn't the answer they were looking for.

The pressure from family, teachers and even peers to go to university straight after school was again such that many felt obliged to do so, whether they thought it was the best thing for them or not.

But these students are aware many employers regard work experience as more valuable than education. Recruitment executive Nicholas Beames, of Aspire Human Capital Management, believes the value of general commerce and arts degrees is limited from an employer's perspective. But he also says these degrees have benefits beyond the work force.

"General commerce or arts-type degrees are not overly valuable towards getting a specific job," Beames says. "You can't quantify what their value is because they don't provide specific training. However, they do obviously provide wisdom and an opportunity to mature."

But employers also would be aware that the quality of university education is under question.

The ratio of students to teachers has blown out over the past 10 years from about 14 to one to more than 21 to one, according to the National Union of Students.

Beames is adamant that, regardless of the perceived standard of education, practical experience is of paramount importance to employers. "A university degree does not give someone the right to step up [the employment ladder]. Hard work and hands-on practical experience is 90 per cent of what gets you going in the first place. "You could go and do a bachelor of commerce and get high distinctions and get a job at Macquarie Bank as a junior analyst, to find yourself making coffees. No doubt the coffee would be good, though."

Carly MacMillan did a three-year degree in business management and says that, in hindsight, there was too much pressure for her to complete a degree. She appreciates the idea behind studying theory but believes textbooks could never replicate the business experience she has gained working for an events and production agency.

"Had I gone straight into the industry I would have had three more years' experience -- three more years of contact with clients," MacMillan says. "The uni lifestyle is all well and good but I really wanted to get my feet wet." Degree or not degree -- that is the question Richard Hemming asks, as university doesn't always deliver the skills employers want.

Melissa Grounds, who completed a bachelor of social science in 2004, says it's ridiculous to have thought, at 17, that she knew what she wanted her career to be. Her ambition now, having worked for several companies, is to obtain employment in human resources.

To do this, she says, she will have to complete courses to specialise in this field. She believes her time at university was largely wasted when she could have made career decisions while getting experience in the work force. "In hindsight, I wish I hadn't gone straight to uni but the pressure to go to uni is so high, from parents and my school," Grounds says. "They make you think that to get any sort of a job you have to have a degree, no matter what it is."

The reality is also that students such as Grounds often feel as though all they are left with, upon completing their studies, is a HECS debt and what she calls "a bit of paper". A three-year arts degree costs about $20,000.

On the other hand, Cara Williamson says she has been through the university "grinder" and come out with what she wanted. She started doing an arts degree, which was a fall-back option because she didn't know what she wanted to do. After a year she switched to a bachelor of economics and social sciences, which gave her more direction for a career in media and marketing. Williamson says the system was buckling under the weight of so many wanting to go to university and that there was not the level of career guidance she had expected.

She is philosophical about her changing path at university. "Where do you draw the line between the university's lack of competence and your own lack of direction?"

The Good The Bad and The Uni

Mathew Geale (right) had already studied to be a jeweller before going to university. Being 21 and older than most students, he was under no illusion that his chosen degree, a bachelor of applied arts, would lead to employment. "The degree itself didn't give me any particular qualifications that made me more desirable for employers," Geale says. "I would have made more money doing an apprenticeship."

He was surprised at the lack of technical training at university but glad that, unlike other students, he had completed a TAFE course before university because it let him use his technical abilities to express his ideas. University exposed him to concepts about design and creativity that an apprenticeship would not have provided, he says.

"An apprenticeship is four years and it is a lot of practice. It would have stifled my ideas of design." Geale believes his time at university, though well spent, wasn't the ultimate solution in terms of his career but gave him more to think about. "I wouldn't say I'm negative about going to uni but I'm slightly cynical that it wasn't as useful as people say it can be.

"Professionally it didn't help me much. If I hadn't done TAFE I wouldn't be able to express my ideas in my way."