Houston aims to be electric car capital

Houston, nicknamed the Petro Metro for the profusion of oil and gas companies that dot its skyline, is an unlikely host for an electric-car revolution.

But the fourth-biggest U.S. city, which claims the title of the “Energy Capital of the World,” is competing with cities like San Francisco to be the nation’s electric car capital.

“We are the Petro Metro but we are also a car city,” said newly elected Mayor Annise Parker, speaking at an event on February 5 to promote the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric, five-passenger vehicle that can travel 100 miles on a single charge. “To have an electric vehicle that appeals to a car culture will make the real difference for market penetration.”

Cities like Houston and San Francisco are forging partnerships with automakers and power companies to make the vision a reality.

In Houston, for instance, Japanese-based Nissan Motor has signed a deal where the city and power provider Reliant, a unit of NRG Energy, will build a handful of public-charging stations to allow electric car drivers to recharge their cars.

Nissan has signed agreements with other cities like San Diego, Seattle, and Orlando and states like Tennessee and Oregon to ensure that public-charging stations are built.

Such agreements are key to easing skeptical consumers’ fears of running out of juice if their car batteries run low before they can reach their garage charging stations.

For beleaguered U.S. automakers like General Motors and Ford Motor, electric cars could be a way to boost shrinking market share.

“Detroit needs something to be exciting and new,” said William Hederman, a senior vice president at Concept Capital’s Washington Research Group.

General Motors’ highly-anticipated battery-powered Chevy Volt hits showrooms in November, about the same time that Nissan begins U.S. sales of the Leaf.

Love of big cars
Texas drivers have a well-established affinity for over-sized cars, but the case for electric cars is strong.

Even if a small percentage of Texas drivers switch to electric cars, the payoff could be substantial. The Houston area alone is home to 4.5 million vehicles that travel 86 million miles a day, according to state statistics.

And Texas leads the nation in producing clean, carbon-free electricity from windmills. But the state must build billions of dollars worth of transmission lines needed to channel the wind power to urban centers.

For U.S. utilities that have seen electric demand slump 5 percent over the last two years due to a recession, the electric car is a godsend, said Kevin Book, managing director of research at ClearView Energy Partners.

“What a salvation the electric car revolution would be for generators that are well below their capacity margins and trying to figure out how to make money,” Book said.

In a strange bedfellows story of sorts, U.S. utilities have moved in recent months to cement ties with automakers.

“We’ve worked very closely together,” said Tony Earley, chief executive of a Detroit utility and chairman of the U.S. electric industry’s main lobbying group who also sits on Ford’s board of directors.

Such coordination has helped utilities fend off clean-car competition in the form of natural gas-powered vehicles promoted by Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens, Hederman said.

Utilities see electric cars as a perfect market for spare electricity that is generated by power plants in off-peak hours that could be sold to consumers who will recharge their electric cars during late-night and early-morning hours when power is the cheapest.

“If it works the way utilities envision, it’s growth that fills in the valleys of their demand patterns, and that would be a wonderful thing,” Hederman said.

Utilities must build or buy generation to meet the one day of the year when electricity demand is the highest. “The other 364 days of the year our system is under-utilized,” said Earley, also chief executive of DTE Energy in Detroit. “There is a lot of capacity that is unused.”

Under pressure
For utilities and auto companies watching climate change legislation advance on Capitol Hill, electric cars are a useful tool to reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions to comply with looming first-ever U.S. greenhouse gas restrictions.

“We know that our utility partners face the same pressures that we do to reduce emissions,” said Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning.

About one-quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are linked with cars. U.S. President Barack Obama wants to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

And even without climate change legislation, smog-enveloped cities like Houston are already under the gun from federal regulators to reduce smog-causing pollutants like nitrogen oxide, which comes mainly from vehicles.

One big question mark for utilities is how they will be compensated for building charging stations. One study by the University of California Berkeley pegged the cost of building U.S. charging stations at $320 billion in coming decades.

State public utility commissions will have to give utilities permission to recover infrastructure costs via higher rates, but won’t approve electric charging stations until they are widely used, Hederman said.


Windows patch cripples XP with blue screen, users claim

Angry customers blame MS10-015 for Blue Screen of Death and XP reboot hell Tuesday’s security updates from Microsoft have crippled Windows XP PCs with the notorious Blue Screen of Death (BSOD), users have reported on the company’s support forum.

Complaints began early yesterday, and gained momentum throughout the day.

“I updated 11 Windows XP updates today and restarted my PC like it asked me to,” said a user identified as “tansenroy” who kicked off a growing support thread . “From then on, Windows cannot restart again! It is stopping at the blue screen with the following message: ‘A problem has been detected and Windows has been shutdown to prevent damage to your computer.'”

Others joined in with similar reports. “There is something seriously wrong with the update. I can’t even open in safe mode,” said “Ghellow,” referring to Windows diagnostic mode that’s often a last-chance way to boot a PC.

“I am not very happy with Microsoft as I got to work this morning to find my helpdesk flooded with messages that the PC has the famous Blue Screen,” said “brawfab.”

“I had to go to work and use my Mac to get online to find out what is going on with the XP updates last night,” complained “moosewalk” on the same thread. “I am this much closer to switching over to a Mac for good.”

The support thread, which was first noticed by security blogger Brian Krebs , contained more than 120 messages as of early Thursday, making it the third-longest on the Windows Update support forum. The thread had been viewed more than 2,800 times since its inception.

Several users posted solutions, but the one laid out by “maxyimus” was marked by a Microsoft support engineer as the way out of the perpetual blue screens. To regain control of their PCs, users were told to boot from their Windows XP installation disc, launch the Recovery Console and enter a series of commands.

Unfortunately, that left netbook users out of luck, since most of the lightweight, inexpensive laptops lack an optical drive, and so can’t boot from an XP installation disc. “Are there any fixes for netbooks, or am I essentially screwed for the time being?” asked “HimDen.”

Several users tentatively identified the MS10-015 update as the one which triggered the BSOD, and claimed that uninstalling that security fix — which was labeled as KB977165 — returned their PC to working condition.

MS10-015 , one of 13 security updates Microsoft issued Tuesday, patched a 17-year-old kernel bug in all 32-bit versions of Windows. The vulnerability went public three weeks ago when a Google engineer disclosed the bug and posted proof-of-concept attack code.

This was not the first time that a Microsoft update has incapacitated Windows PCs. Two years ago, a set of updates for Vista sent an unknown number of machines into an endless series of reboots . Similar problems stymied users who tried to upgrade to Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) in May 2008, and others attempting to upgrade from Vista to Windows 7 last October.

Microsoft was not immediately available for comment early Thursday.

When webcams go bad: Students sue school officials for remote spying

If your laptop computer’s webcam could talk about what it sees, what would it say?

Students of a Pennsylvania school district are hauling educators to court over allegations that administrators remotely activated the webcams on school-issued laptops and used that remote access to spy on students and their family members. (Techmeme)

The civil suit (PDF) was filed last week against the Lower Merion School District in Ardmore, PA, its board of directors and the Superintendent. It alleges violations of the electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania Common Law. In part, the suit reads:

Unbeknownst to Plaintiffs and the members of the Class, and without their authorization, Defendants have been spying on the activities of Plaintiffs and Class members by Defendants’ indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District, This continuing surveillance of Plaintiffs’ and the Class members’ home use of the laptop issued by the School District, including the indiscriminant remote activation of the webcams incorporated into each laptop, was accomplished without the knowledge or consent of the Plaintiffs or the members of the class.

The suit notes that there are about 1,800 students in the district’s two high schools and that students were each assigned a laptop computer that was purchased, in part, through state and federal grants secured over the past few years. The suit also notes that all of the written documentation that accompanied the laptop made no reference to the district’s ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam.

The issue came to light in November when an assistant principal informed a student about improper behavior in his home and produced a photograph captured from the laptop’s webcam as proof. The suit did not specify the type of activity the student was engaged in.

Because the webcam would capture images of anything in its range, including the actions of other household members and their guests, the plaintiffs in the case extend to family members, as well as the students themselves.


IPv4 addresses in short supply

The shortage of IPv4 addresses has reached a critical stage, according to the registries that allocate Internet numbers around the world.

The Number Resource Organization (NRO), which represents the registries, said Tuesday that less than 10 percent of all IPv4 addresses remain available, threatening the future network operations of all businesses and organizations unless ISPs and businesses step up their migration to IPv6.

“The limited IPv4 addresses will not allow us enough resources to achieve the ambitions we all hold for global Internet access,” NRO Chairman Axel Pawlik said in a statement Tuesday. “The deployment of IPv6 is a key infrastructure development that will enable the network to support the billions of people and devices that will connect in the coming years.”


Google to offer ‘ultra high-speed’ broadband in US

Google is spreading its wings in yet another direction – this time as a network provider, offering super-fast broadband to thousands of US homes.

It plans to build a fibre-optic network offering speeds of up to 1Gbps (gigabit per second) to up to 500,000 homes.

It said it would compete on price with other broadband providers offering much slower speeds.

Google said the trial was about promoting killer apps that would take advantage of fast speeds.

“We planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States,” the search giant said in its blog.

“We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people. We’ll deliver internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today,” it continued.

Growing Google

Google already has a fibre network which connects its data centres, speeds up search and lowers the cost of streaming video on YouTube.

Now it plans to take this to the next stage and connect that network directly to consumers’ homes.

The network will be available for any service provider to use and Google is asking interested parties, from local government as well as members of the public, to sign up to the plan.

The offer is part of Google’s expansion into controlling all aspects of a web user’s experience.

In late 2009 Google offered a service called public DNS, which it said would speed up web browsing for users.

The domain name system is a series of databases that translate web addresses into computer readable numbers called IP addresses.

“The average Internet user ends up performing hundreds of DNS lookups each day, and some complex pages require multiple DNS lookups before they start loading,” Google wrote in a blog at the time. “This can slow down the browsing experience.”

DNS requests are usually handled by a person’s Internet Service Provider (ISP).

In November 2009, the search giant also announced that it was working on a project to develop a faster version of http – which Google call SPDY – to speed up the transfer of content over the web.

At the time, the firm said its lab tests had shown that web pages loaded “up to 55% faster” using the protocol.

Broadband expansion

The US, in common with countries around the world, is grappling with the best way to roll out next generation broadband.

In the first month of his office President Obama promised to spend $7.2bn on new broadband infrastructure.

The pot of money is available for smaller broadband providers and municipalities.

For Drew Clark, editor of US broadband comparison website BroadbandCensus, the impact of Google’s entry into the broadband market will depend on how many homes the network serves.

“If it is 50,000 homes then that isn’t a lot. But if it is 500,000 then that is a statement to say it is in the market place competing with the likes of Verizon,” he said.

Verizon has made big investments in fibre networks, with plans to pass 18 million homes with its fibre-optic service by the end of the year.

Rival AT&T has 17 million households in its network but its fibre network does not run all the way to the home.

Google said it hopes its fibre network will act as a testbed for new applications.

Andrew Ferguson, editor of UK broadband website ThinkBroadband speculated as to what some of those killer apps could be.

“One idea would be to expand Google Streetview, so that you can play a movie of a route you wanted to take, so that when you are visiting a brand new area you will have a much better understanding of the area than is possible from simple static street view maps,” he said.

White House puts companies on notice in China

WASHINGTON–U.S. Internet companies might soon need to find a new strategy for dealing with China.

In announcing that it is now U.S. policy to advocate a free and open Internet around the world, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday essentially dared U.S. companies to follow Google’s lead and put an end to their complicit censorship of Internet content. Google has said it will shut down its Chinese search engine if it can’t find a way to offer an uncensored version under Chinese law, and while no one else has jumped on that bandwagon, they may soon have little choice.

“…We are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance. The private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what’s right, not simply what’s a quick profit,” Clinton said in remarks Thursday at the Newseum, before an audience including members of Congress, representatives from nonprofit groups, and perhaps more than one Internet company executive forced to ponder the meaning of that paragraph.

Clinton stopped short of actually proposing regulations or sanctions on Internet companies that comply with censorship laws. But her tone was clear: it’s now the policy of the U.S. government to renounce corporate “engagement,” or the belief that by merely being in countries like China, U.S. Internet companies are helping expand access to information.

Will it work? Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have already formed the Global Network Initiative, a consortium of companies and organizations designed to provide guidelines for operating in countries with authoritarian governments without turning into tools of those governments. Clinton acknowledged the work of the GNI during her speech, but is calling on companies to do more.

Microsoft declined to directly address its plans for China in a statement, but thanked Clinton for recognizing the GNI. “We welcome Secretary Clinton’s remarks and applaud the heightened attention she has brought to these issues of privacy and freedom of expression. We agree with Secretary Clinton that both governments and the private sector have important roles to play,” the company said. Last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that the company remained committed to China despite Google’s announcement.

Google, which was recognized during Clinton’s speech for “making the issue of Internet and information freedom a greater consideration in (its) business decisions,” said it welcomed the challenge. “Free expression and security are important issues for governments everywhere, and at Google we are obviously great believers in the value to society of unfettered access to information. We’re excited about continuing our work with governments, human rights organizations, and bloggers, to promote free expression and increased access to information in the years ahead,” it said in a statement.

Yahoo did not respond to a request for comment.


Wi-Fi ‘allergies’ leave man homeless

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports a man claiming to suffer from electromagnetic sensitivity is suing his neighbor for refusing to disconnect her electronic devices.

Santa Fe, New Mexico resident Arthur Firstenberg claims that his neighbor Raphaela Monribot’s use of electronic devices such as cell phones, computers, compact fluorescent lights and dimmer rheostats is aggravating his “electromagnetic sensitivity” and causing him to get sick.

“Within a day of [Monribot] moving in, I began to feel sick when I was in my house,” Firstenberg writes in his affidavit. “The electric meter for my house is mounted on [Monribot’s] house. Electromagnetic fields emitted in [Monribot’s] house are transmitted by wire directly into my house.”

A request for preliminary injunction claims Fristenberg’s condition has left him homeless. Fristenberg “cannot stay in a hotel, because hotels and motels all employ wi-fi connections, which trigger a severe illness. If [Firstenberg] cannot obtain preliminary relief, he will be forced to continue to sleep in his car, enduring winter cold and discomfort, until this case can be heard.”

The Santa Fe New Mexican notes “Firstenberg’s motion is accompanied by dozens of notes from doctors, some dating back more than a decade, about his sensitivities.”

However, scientific studies such as this 2005 trial at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Germany suggest electromagnetic sensitivity is strictly a psychosomatic disorder.

The major study endpoint was the ability of the subjects to differentiate between real magnetic stimulation and a sham condition. There were no significant differences between groups in the thresholds, neither of detecting the real magnetic stimulus nor in motor response.

We found no objective correlate of the self perception of being “electrosensitive.” Overall, our experiment does not support the hypothesis that subjectively electrosensitive patients suffer from a physiological hypersensitivity to EMFs or stimuli.

Do you acknowledge Fristenberg, and others claiming electronic sensitivity, may be suffering real physiological effects and should be allowed to live free from electronic devices? Or should treatment be strictly psychological?


FCC’s underwhelming-looking broadband plan also tardy

Time to reset the game clock on the National Broadband Plan.

The plan, due to be presented to Congress next month, now looks to be delayed by a month. Like a tardy student going to a professor, the FCC has written Congress to ask for a four-week extension on its “big paper.” Perhaps the agency can use the extra time to ensure the plan contains some of that “change” we’ve heard so much about.
Filling gaps

In December, we were given a sneak peak at the plan-in-progress. While interesting, it was also underwhelming.

Broadband plans in other countries have done things like aim for 1Gbps connections by 2015 (Japan), separate last-mile copper and fiber networks from backend networks and open them to all competitors (UK), and even build an open access national fiber network (Australia). The US, in contrast, looks ready to find and auction off some extra wireless spectrum in five years or so; it might also require rural telcos taking universal service money to provide low-speed broadband to all their lines. Oh, and some people might get Internet access on their TV sets.

The policies we’ve seen so far look good, and the FCC has had an impressive team working on the issue for nearly a year now, but the final result looks a lot like “tinkering around the edges” rather than doing something truly game-changing. The FCC commissioned a major report from Harvard researchers on world broadband markets, and that report made essentially one recommendation: mandate line-sharing rules to provide real competition. But it’s not in the plan.

The Department of Commerce also weighed in this week, telling the FCC that US broadband was generally a duopoly, that wireless really wouldn’t be a replacement for wireline networks, and that providing more spectrum wouldn’t fix the competitive situation.

Everyone’s calling for bold action on broadband, even Republicans like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). In an op-ed this week, Hutchison demanded a “daring, comprehensive” plan. What was her main idea for such a plan? Additional wireless spectrum.

The FCC continues to insist it will deliver something solid. “Gaps” in US broadband access will be addressed “boldly,” said FCC Chair Julius Genachowski this week. Extending coverage to all is a good thing. Opening up spectrum, especially to unlicensed use (which brought us WiFi and now White Space Devices) is a good thing. But nothing coming from the FCC looks likely to push US ISPs to be truly awesome on the world stage (see our piece on incredible ISPs around the world, and take a look at the service they are already providing before you say it can’t be done here).

ISPs like France’s Free.fr already offer ADSL connections of up to 28Mbps that provide TV, Internet, and phone service for €29.99, showing just how much can really be done by the right kind of competition. Meanwhile, Americans can pay $35/month for 6Mbps Internet-only DSL connections with customer service like this.

The FCC’s point man for broadband, Blair Levin, has essentially ruled out line-sharing already, and he’s also right that just “thinking big” without having a plan to get there is ineffective. And yes, some of the high speeds advertised in other countries can’t be obtained in reality. But a look round the world shows that broadband can at least be done better, it can certainly be done cheaper, and success is often a function of the regulatory environment. That doesn’t mean government-run broadband; it just means that the ground rules truly encourage competition, the sort of competition that both the Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice don’t currently see in the market.

We’ll reserve final judgment on the FCC’s efforts until March, when the National Broadband Plan is revealed in its full splendor. But we’re skeptical that a few more weeks will lead the agency to think any bigger. When JFK announced that the US would race for the moon, he said we would pursue moon landings “not only because they are easy, but because they are hard.” When it comes to broadband, it looks like we’ll be doing a host of good—but pretty easy—things.


Mars rover Spirit’s days may be numbered

One of NASA’s seemingly immortal Mars rovers might soon be at the end of its days.

The Spirit rover had been cruising around the Red Planet, along with its companion, Opportunity, since they both arrived six years ago this month. (Spirit landed on January 3, 2004, while Opportunity landed on January 24 of that year.) Their mission to send back photos and data about the Martian surface was expected to last a mere 90 days. Instead, the two traveling research bots blew away all expectations, continuing their treks year after year.

However, scientists warn that Spirit’s most recent anniversary might have been its last. The rover became stuck in a sand trap nine months ago, after one of its wheels broke through a crusty layer of soil into a pocket of loose sand. It wasn’t the first time Spirit has run into trouble. Its right-front wheel stopped working in 2006, and a month ago, its right-rear wheel began to fail.

Scientists continue to try to get Spirit out of the sand pit, but so far those efforts have been unsuccessful. Wiggling the wheels and rotating them very slowly have resulted in only minimal improvements in the situation. Next, NASA could try having Spirit drive backward or use its robotic arm to sculpt the ground directly in front of one of its wheels. But expectations are low, and on Wednesday, NASA said it is running out of maneuvers to attempt.

All of this is worsened by the fact that the rovers are solar-powered, which means they need to collect sunlight with their onboard solar panels in order to power their operations and create enough heat to survive the frigid winters on Mars.

In the southern hemisphere of Mars, where Spirit is trapped, it is currently autumn–so precious sunlight is declining with each day. The rover also happens to have settled into a position that’s far from ideal for collecting what sunlight remains. It’s tilted five degrees to the south, but the sun is in the north.

Even if Spirit cannot escape its sandy prison, all isn’t necessarily lost–at least for now. Ray Arvidson, who’s from Washington University in St. Louis and who also serves as deputy principal investigator for the rovers, says that if scientists can improve Spirit’s tilt, it might be able to collect enough power to keep doing research right where it is.

“We can study the interior of Mars, monitor the weather, and continue examining the interesting deposits uncovered by Spirit’s wheels,” said Arvidson in a statement.

If the team cannot free Spirit or improve its angle, NASA estimates that the rover will run out of power in May–if not sooner.

Meanwhile, Spirit’s sister rover, Opportunity, keeps rolling on. It is currently making the seven-mile trek from Mars’ Victoria crater to the Endeavour crater to continue its research.