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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Google new initiative to develop renewable energy sources

Wind-Powered Google Data Centers? One Already Exists

Google (NSDQ: GOOG)'s new initiative to develop renewable energy sources conjures up images of data centers powered by water, wind, and the sun. No need to stretch your imagination; Google's already got them.

Google's hydro-powered data center on the banks of the Columbia River in The Dalles, Ore., has been well documented. I walked the perimeter of the facility in August. As you can see from my pictures, Google's data center is literally a stone's throw from the Columbia. The juice to power and cool the place comes from a dam a mile or so downstream.

I'm not an expert in these things, but it seems to me that The Dalles would be a good location for wind-powered energy to augment the swift current of the Columbia. The surrounding landscape, hills, and river valley form a natural wind tunnel, at least they did when I was there. Rights of way and public resistance to eyesore windmills would seem to be the obvious barriers.

In the Netherlands, Google has a wind-powered data center nearing completion. Check out these pictures by local Erwin Boogert.

There are caveats to these images of a green Shangri La. In The Dalles, Google negotiated discounted energy rates and tax incentives, so it's able to suck more power at lower costs than other companies. And in the Netherlands, those windmills provide only some of the power. A power plant down the road generates the rest.

But it's clear that Google is intent on using eco-friendly energy sources in lieu of coal-burning power plants. In an article about a new Google data center under construction in Council Bluffs, Iowa, The Des Moines Register notes that Google purchased 1,000 acres of land south of town in addition to 55 acres for the data center itself and another 130 acres nearby. When local farmer Bruce Barnett asked Google's Ken Patchett -- the manager of Google's data center in Oregon -- about how that land would be used, he was told that Google was still thinking about it.

Might those 1,000 acres be used for a wind farm? Google's "renewable energy cheaper than coal" project increases the possibility.

PayPal Says Linux Grid Can Replace Mainframes

A Linux grid is the power behind the payment system at PayPal, and it's converted a mainframe believer. Scott Thompson, the former executive VP of technology solutions at Inovant, ran the Visa subsidiary responsible for executing Visa credit card transactions worldwide. The VisaNet system was strictly based on IBM mainframes.
In February 2005, Thompson became chief technology officer at the eBay payments company, PayPal, where he confronted a young Internet organization building its entire transaction processing infrastructure on open source Linux and low-cost servers. Hmmmm, he thought at the time.

"I came from Visa, where I had responsibility for VisaNet. It was a fabulous processing system, very big and very global. I was intrigued by PayPal. How would you use Linux for processing payments and never be wrong, never lose messages, never fall behind the pace of transactions," he recalled in an interview.

He now supervises the PayPal electronic payment processing system, which is smaller than VisaNet in volume and total dollar value of transactions. But it's growing fast. It is currently processing $1,571 worth of transactions per second in 17 different currencies. In 2006, the online payments firm, which started out over a bakery in Palo Alto, processed a total of $37.6 billion in transactions. It's headed toward $50 billion this year.

Now located in San Jose, PayPal grants its consumer members options in payment methods: credit cards, debit cards, or directly from a bank account. It has 165 million account holders worldwide, and has recently added such business as Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, U.S. Airways, and, which now permit PayPal payments on their Web sites.

Thompson supervises a payment system that operates on about 4,000 servers running Red Hat Linux in the same manner that eBay and Google conduct their business on top of a grid of Linux servers. "I have been pleasantly surprised at how much we've been able to do with this approach. It operates like a mainframe," he said.

As PayPal grows it's much easier to grow the grid with Intel-based servers than it would be to upgrade a mainframe, he said. In a mainframe environment, the cost to increase capacity a planned 15% or 20% "is enormous. It could be in the tens of millions to do a step increase. In [PayPal's] world, we add hundreds of servers in the course of a couple of nights and the cost is in the thousands, not millions," he said.

PayPal takes Red Hat Enterprise Linux and strips out all features unnecessary to its business, then adds proprietary extensions around security. Another virtue of the grid is that PayPal's 800 engineers can all get a copy of that customized system on their development desktops, run tests on their raw software as they work, and develop to PayPal's needs faster because they're working in the target environment. That's harder to do when the core of the data center consists of large Unix symmetrical multiprocessing boxes or mainframes. In neither case is it cheap to install duplicates for developers, he said.

PayPal "pays very close attention to the Linux kernel development process" lead by Linus Torvalds and the kernel maintainers because future capabilities are being debated and resolved through the process, he said.

PayPal has experimented with virtualization and is watching carefully developments in open source virtualization, still a young field. "One place we see the kernel process at work is in virtualization," Thompson said. VMware's ESX Server can run Linux, as can the open source Xen hypervisor; both work outside the Linux kernel but can be linked to its internal operations. A year ago, Torvalds approved the addition of a contributed Kernel Virtual Machine, which runs inside the kernel and makes use of the kernel's own memory management and other functions.

"If we could fully virtualize our middle tier, that would be another step of cost advantage," said Thompson. More fully virtualized data centers also would allow him to shift workloads across the grid, depending on time of day and traffic volumes, which would lead to additional savings.

"We'd love to shift processing capacity to workloads. That would be a tremendous benefit," and slow the need to buy and manage blade servers, even as PayPal continues to grow, he said.

Virtualization also would help him avoid building out another "power center" or new unit of the data center located close to cheap power. Avoiding added power costs is a much higher priority than it was a few years ago, he said.

But he's not ready to virtualize batches of servers here and there. He wants a plan that will allow "virtualization with a layer of intelligence on top of it" to manage virtual resources. He is experimenting with VMware, but before he implements virtualization throughout the data center, he'll wait until he sees the right intelligence materialize to make it manageable.

Does relying on Linux worry him when Acacia Research, through its subsidiary IP Innovation, filed suit in October against Red Hat and Novell for violating its patent portfolio? And Microsoft claims its patents are violated by Linux? Thompson said: "I'm not worried about those statements. I'm familiar with the issue but I'm not worried about it. We have people in our business who are on top of it."

Intel The new compilers contain auto-parallelizing capabilities

Intel Releases Apple Leopard Toolset Upgrade

The new compilers contain auto-parallelizing capabilities and new application programming interfaces for building multithreaded applications.

Intel (NSDQ: INTC) on Wednesday released an upgrade of its Mac OS X tool suite, which has been optimized for Leopard, the latest version of Apple's operating system.
Version 10.1 of the toolset includes the Intel C++ and Fortran compilers, as well as threading building blocks, math kernel libraries and performance primitives. All have been optimized for Apple's Leopard and Xcode 3.0 development environment launched last month.

The combination of Apple and Intel tools enable developers to take advantage of Intel multi-core processors inside Mac computers, Intel said. The compilers, for example, contain auto-parallelizing capabilities; and Leopard includes new application programming interfaces for building multithreaded applications.

Intel introduced the Mac OS X tool suite in January 2006. Development teams in Apple, Adobe Systems and Autodesk use the toolset. "Intel's software works well in our Xcode environment, and the Intel engineering team does a great job supporting our Apple engineers and Mac OS X developers," Bertrand Serlet, Apple's senior VP of software engineering, said in a statement.

Intel launched the toolset nearly two years ago with the compilers, kernel libraries and primitives. The company added threading building blocks a year later. The Intel evaluation Web site also includes free testing products for Intel's line of Mac development tools.

Mac sales have been increasing, in part by the success of Apple's iPod line of portable media players, which has drawn consumer interest in the company's other products. Nevertheless, development of the Mac platform could be affected by Apple's decision to include in Leopard a utility called Boot Camp that lets users boot Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) Windows.

Apple has warned investors that the utility may discourage developers from building software for Mac OS X, if the same software is available on Windows.

Google Maps With My Location, a service for mobile users

Google Service Uses Cell Towers to Locate Users

Google Maps With My Location, a service for mobile users that doesn't rely on GPS, is now in use by Google.

Google launched a location service for mobile users on Wednesday that doesn't rely on GPS.

Google Maps with My Location, currently in beta, locates users who don't have GPS-enabled phones based on their location to nearby cell towers. The result isn't as accurate as GPS (Global Positioning System) but works for people who lack the positioning technology in their phones.

"It helps users speed up search by showing the general neighborhood they're in," said Steve Lee, product manager at Google for the service. Without the location service, users must type in their address or neighborhood in order to find nearby businesses using Google Maps.

Google Maps with My Location will use GPS data to locate the user if the phone has the capability. But even for users of GPS-enabled phones, the cell location service might be useful, Lee said. That's because the cell tower feature works better indoors than GPS, it doesn't drain the phone battery as quickly and can bring up a result quicker, he said.

The service could be useful to a person who might be traveling in an unfamiliar city and looking for restaurants or other businesses. A user pulls up Google Maps and hits the zero key on the phone. A blue dot will appear on the map in the user's location. If the service used GPS in the phone, the blue dot will be solid. If the service used cell towers to determine the location, the blue dot will have a halo around it, indicating that the location isn't precise. The user can then search for nearby businesses.

Google says the cell tower technique will locate the user within about 1000 meters. It doesn't use triangulation, which calculates a user location based on the user's distance to three nearby towers. Instead, it essentially shows the range of the tower that the user's phone is connecting to.

But the accuracy should improve as more people use the service, Lee said. That's because Google is keeping a database of location queries, minus any personal information like individual phone numbers or names. That will allow Google to learn more precise information about the range of each tower, so that it can deliver a more accurate location area to users. The coverage area of cell towers can vary from about a quarter of a mile to several miles based on whether the tower is in an urban or rural area.

For now, Google Maps with My Location doesn't feature any advertising, but it could in the future. "This product makes a lot of sense for advertising," Lee said.

In order to use the service, phone owners must download a free application from Google. The application will work on BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Symbian phones as well as many phones that support Java. A few notable exceptions include the Samsung Blackjack, Moto Q and Palm Treo 700W, which don't support the APIs (application programming interfaces) Google requires to find cell towers, Lee said.

Google Maps with My Location (beta)

See your location on the map, with or without GPS. Save time and tedious keystrokes finding where you are, what's around you, and how to get there. Watch the video on the right to see how it works.

Press "0" and look for the blue dot or

If you have a GPS-enabled device, this blue dot corresponds to your GPS location. At times, or if you do not have a GPS-enabled phone, you might see the blue dot surrounded by a light blue circle (as shown on the right) to indicate uncertainty about your location.

Why the uncertainty? The My Location feature takes information broadcast from mobile towers near you to approximate your current location on the map - it's not GPS, but it comes pretty close (approximately 1000m close, on average). We're still in beta, but we're excited to launch this feature and are constantly working to improve our coverage and accuracy.

The My Location feature is available for most web-enabled mobile phones, including Java, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Nokia/Symbian devices.

Get more info on the My Location feature and supported devices, or discuss Google Maps and My Location with other users.

Google announces new 'My Location' service for Google Maps Mobile - find yourself without GPS

Maps are great if you know exactly where you’re currently located, but what good are they when you’re completely lost? Navizon is a great solution to help locate your approximate position based on cell-tower signal triangulation (we’ve been using on our iPhones with great results for some time now), and now Google is treading all over their turf. With Google’s announcement of their new “My Location” service on compatible phones with Google Maps for Mobile marks the launch of a public test of the new faux-GPS position location feature.

Google says they’ve compiled a database of cell-tower locations through previous Google Maps users, and has employed some “algorithms” (we call them “triangulation equations”) to quickly give Google Maps for Mobile users a fairly accurate lock of their current position. By simply pressing ‘0′ on your keypad, the service can pinpoint locations to within several meters in optimal condition - presumably with at least three cell-towers in range. The “My Location” service is available for free to anyone with Google Maps for Mobile and a compatible cellphone - its in open beta testing, but is available to most BlackBerry, S60, and Windows Mobile users.

Users with integrated GPS receivers can use the new “My Location” service for Google Maps Mobile to complement their satellite position-fix when buildings or mountains obscure the line-of-sight required for a GPS signal-lock. Head on over to Google’s download page to find out if your phone is compatible with the upgrade.

Video games are undergoing a real renaissance

Mass Effect' a thrilling, absorbing space opera.
You'll want to explore this 'do-anything' universe over and over again

Video games are undergoing a real renaissance in storytelling this holiday, from Sony's "Uncharted" to Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed." But the undisputed champ of 2007 is "Mass Effect," a sprawling space opera for the Xbox 360. Boiling over with new twists on science fiction staples, political intrigue on a galactic scale, and even a handful of romantic subplots, "Mass Effect" delivers a narrative that you can really sink your thumbs into over and over again.

The backstory sounds like typical sci-fi fodder: Humankind is a relative newcomer to the overall galactic community, but our propensity for aggression and compassion has made us a huge focal point of the known universe. In fact, so much attention is lavished on humans that other alien races view us with jealousy and disdain.

Because humankind has only recently joined the cosmic rat race, we still do not have a place on the council that oversees all activity in the galaxy — nor are we represented amongst the Spectres, agents of the council that are not bound by traditional law.

One of those Spectres, Saren, has gone rogue and attacked a human colony to get his hands on an ancient alien artifact that could unlock the deepest secrets of the universe. Humankind must take matters into their own hands to track down Saren and bring him to justice. That is, if the council will even listen to evidence brought forth by the game's hero: Commander Shepherd.

How you get from one end of the galaxy to the other and apprehend Saren is entirely up to you — and this is one of the rare times when a video game that promises a "do-anything" universe actually delivers. "Mass Effect" is a game about choice. From the moment you start the adventure, you are bombarded with decisions that have significant effects on how the game unfolds.

Perhaps your biggest decision is how you choose to construct the game's hero, Shepherd. Making the hero a heroine will dictate how some aliens treat you. You can also customize Shepherd's background, which in turn affects the storyline. Before finally heading out into the coldness of space, you choose whether to make Shepherd a soldier, technician, or biotic (biotics are the game's equivalent of magic) — or some combination of the three.

The choices hardly stop there. Between action scenes, Shepherd enters into a lot of conversation — if it has ears and a mouth, it's fair game for a chat. A lesser game would be slighted for being too "talky," but the crackling banter and smoothly doled-out exposition never grows tiresome. (Exceptional voice work also helps, including a star turn from actor Keith David, the Arbiter in "Halo 2" and "Halo 3.")

While engaging in dialogue, you choose Shepherd's thrusts and parries, guiding the conversation. Shepherd can represent the best in humankind's generosity or dish out some harsh words that get the job done, hurt feelings be damned. A silver tongue can even lead to a little romance, allowing Shepherd to go all Captain Kirk with blue-skinned alien women. This is a true role-playing game.

"Mass Effect" is hardly just a tea-time simulator. The Spectre has struck a bargain with a ghastly race of aliens called the Geth, and the majority of combat situations involve Shepherd blasting Geth nasties off hostile planets. The combat is seen in third-person, not entirely unlike the Xbox 360 hit, "Gears of War," and for the most part, it's consistently thrilling. The ramification of past choices is really felt in combat, as you wonder if beefing up your talents with a shotgun was unwise in a situation where defensive biotic powers might have been more useful.

Exploration is also a major component of "Mass Effect." The central hub of the galaxy and home of the galactic council, called the Citadel, is a colossal space station full of sights, sounds, and curious aliens. Players can pick up a lot of extra jobs here to augment the main quest, another cool part of "Mass Effect's" choose-your-own-adventure vibe.

Nothing's perfect, though, and "Mass Effect" is marred by a list of unfortunate technical glitches and presentation-related speed bumps. The otherwise strong visuals often need a second or two to catch up to the hero as he runs from location to location. The frame rate occasionally struggles to keep up, reducing the game to a slideshow for several seconds at a time. Your squad members also have a talent for getting stuck in doors and crates at just the wrong time, like in the middle of an intense firefight. None of these problems are absolute showstoppers, the kind of bugaboos that make you want to permanently eject the disc.

Researchers studied sunsets to look for effects caused by volcanic eruptions

Greek scientist Christos Zerefos shows one of the paintings that he studied at the National Observatory of Penteli, near Athens. Zerefos led a group of Greek scientists studying the colors of sunsets in more than 500 paintings by old masters from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Scientists use paintings to track climate change

The vivid sunsets painted by J.M.W. Turner are revered for their use of color and light and for their influence on the Impressionists. But could they also help global warming experts track climate change?

A group of scientists has studied the colors in more than 500 paintings of sunsets, including many of Turner’s 19th-century watercolors and oils, in hopes of gaining insights into the cooling effects caused by major volcanic eruptions.

By better understanding past changes in climate, they hope to improve computer models for future climate change.

Christos Zerefos, who led the research at the National Observatory in Athens, said he believed it was the first scientific study of art for clues to climate variations.

The scientists studied works painted around the times of major volcanic eruptions, such as the cataclysmic explosion of Mount Krakatoa in 1883, to measure how much pollution was pumped into the skies. Contemporary accounts describe brilliant sunsets after Krakatoa erupted.

“The initial idea arose from the fact that we saw an increased reddening of colors in sunsets which followed large volcanic eruptions, particularly Krakatoa,” Zerefos said.

By measuring the amount of red and green in the paintings, the scientists aimed to calculate the amount of dust in the atmosphere. The greater the pollution, the redder the sunset, Zerefos said.

Skepticism about method
But Kevin Trenberth, who heads the Climate Analysis Research Center at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and who is not connected to the study, warned that artists and scientists do not necessarily see sunsets the same way.

“Painters are not scientists trying to do an accurate picture of nature,” he said. “They are artists trying to make something look good or dramatic.”

And James Hamilton, the curator at the University of Birmingham, who has written books on Turner, said that while Turner claimed to paint what he saw, it’s dangerous to put too much weight on an artist’s interpretation.

“They (artists) are not making absolutely clear and accurate records of what they can see,” he said. “It’s very hard to tell when artists are being absolutely accurate and when they’re using vivid sky as a platform to more vivid painting.”

John Thorne, a professor of atmospheric meteorology at the University of Birmingham, who is not connected to the study, said that while there can be a worry about painters taking artistic license, the study deals with that by using a cross section of artists.

“Some artists are very true to nature, some are very true to making up their own story,” Thorne said. “But they’ve used a huge cross-section. So rather than a specific artist, they’re more showing an average across all artists.”

Hamilton agreed, noting: “The more artists and more known dates, the better.”

554 paintings examined
The group examined 554 paintings from 181 artists and categorized 54 of them as “volcanic sunset paintings” because they were painted within three years of major volcanic eruptions.

The volcanic group included paintings by 19 artists, including Turner, Claude Lorrain, John Singleton Copley, Friedrich Caspar David, Breton Jules, Edgar Degas, Alexander Cozens and Gustav Klimt.

The scientists measured the color ratio in all the paintings and found that those with the highest red to green ratio were in the volcanic group.

humanoid practice robot with a complete set of pearly white teeth.

Japan Expo Showcases Latest Humanoid RobotsA robot math whiz breezes through a Rubik's Cube, using metal hands to twist and turn the colorful toy.

A panda robot uses sensors to detect when people are laughing, and joins in.

A dentistry student peers into the mouth of a new patient — a humanoid practice robot with a complete set of pearly white teeth
Japan showed off its cutting-edge robots Wednesday at the country's largest robotics convention, a dazzling display of the technologies that make it a world leader in both service and industrial robotics.

The dental training robot, dubbed Simroid for "simulator humanoid," has realistic skin, eyes, and a mouth fitted with replica teeth that trainees practice drilling on.

A sensor fitted where the nerve endings would be raises the alert when dental students drill too close — triggering a yelp from the robot.

"Ow, that hurt!" a female robot squeaked, narrowing her eyes as a young dentist drilled on her replica teeth. "Now, I'm OK," she said as the dentist eased off.

"Our aim is to train dentists to worry about whether patients are comfortable, and not just focus on technical expertise," said Dr. Naotake Shibui of the Nippon Dental University in Tokyo, who collaborated with technicians at Kokoro Co. to develop the robot.

Researchers are still ironing out a few kinks — including perfecting a function that lets novices inject anesthetic into robot gums — before working on commercialization plans, Shibui said. He said a prototype has been used at the university since September.

Across the hall, Kawasaki Heavy Industries' Mr. Cube robot used built-in color sensors and a pair of dexterous hands to solve a Rubik's Cube, then raised the completed puzzle in glee to show off to spectators.

Mr. Cube is no match for his human counterparts, taking up to five minutes to solve a typical puzzle while the human world record is 9.77 seconds.

Still, the sensors' ability to quickly detect and differentiate between colors is a breakthrough in industrial robotics, said Kawasaki engineer Masafumi Wada.

"We hope to employ this technology to robots working in factories, so they can distinguish parts by color, as well as size and shape," Wada said. "That would make production lines much more versatile," he said.

The main focus of the 2007 International Robot Exhibition, which kicked off Wednesday in Tokyo, is on industrial robots like Mr. Cube.

Japan is an industrial robot powerhouse, with over 370,000 in use in 2005 — about 40 percent of the global total and 32 robots for every 1,000 Japanese manufacturing employees — according to a recent report by Macquarie Bank.

But Japan has also led the way in personal robots, with big players like Honda Corp. and Sony Corp. to little-known startups launching robotic companions for the home.

Waseda University's furry, panda-shaped Tocco-chan robot, for example, is designed to relieve stress by helping people laugh.

A Web camera connects to software that scans a person's face for smiles — and when it detects one, the robot joins in by giggling and wiggling its arms and legs.

"We all know laughing is good for your health. This robot helps you laugh, by laughing together with you," said Waseda research student Saiko Hirano, who developed Tocco-chan.

"I wanted to design a robot that helps people," she said. "But mostly, this robot is the product of a wild imagination."

lightning striking the surface of the planet Venus.

Lightning Storms Shake Clouds on Venus

Nearby Venus is looking a bit more Earth-like with frequent bursts of lightning confirmed by a new European space probe.

For nearly three decades, astronomers have said Venus probably had lightning — ever since a 1978 NASA probe showed signs of electrical activity in its atmosphere. But experts weren't sure because of signal interference.

Now a magnetic antenna on the European Space Agency's Venus Express probe proved that the lightning was real.

We consider this to be the first definitive evidence of abundant lighting on Venus," David Grinspoon of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science told reporters Wednesday at a briefing in Paris.

The finding is significant because lightning affects atmospheric chemistry, so scientists will have to take it into account as they try to understand the atmosphere and climate of Venus, he said.

The lightning is cloud-to-cloud and about 35 miles above the surface, said University of California, Los Angeles geophysics professor C.T. Russell, lead author of a paper on the Venusian fireworks. It is being published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Bursts of electrical energy from lightning are something that scientists have long theorized could provide the spark of life in primordial ooze.

But not on Venus.

"If life was ever something serious to talk about on Venus, it would be early in its history, not in its current state," said Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was not part of the research team. "It's a very unforgiving atmosphere."

The idea of Earth-like lightning is fascinating, Russell said. However, you couldn't see it from Venus' surface, nor would you want to look because the Venusian atmosphere is 100 times more dense than Earth's, is about 900 degrees hotter and has clouds of sulfuric acid, he said.

"It may be Earth's 'evil twin,' but it is in many respects Earth's twin," Russell said.

What excites astronomers most about the lightning discovery is simply the coolness factor.

Venus' weather forecasts have long thought to be "kind of boring ... steady winds for the next 400 years," said Allan Treiman, a senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, who isn't affiliated with the research.

The idea of lightning, he said, adds a spark to Venus'

Google in Diffrenent :Google's energy push

Many people aren't totally sure what to make of Google's ambitious announcement on Tuesday that it intends to generate one gigawatt of electricity--the equivalent of a few power plants--from renewable-energy sources.

After all, what is a company that makes its money from search and advertising know about the stodgy world of utilities and power generation?
Search giant Google on Tuesday pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make renewable energy cheaper than coal.

The effort, dubbed RE
Technologies created by Google will likely be used by Google, whose data centers are voracious consumers of electricity. The company envisions either selling electricity from renewable sources or licensing technology on terms that would promote broad adoption, according to company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Its overarching goal is to produce 1 gigawatt of electricity from renewable sources--enough to power the city of San Francisco--faster than the current pace of green-technology development.

"The main crux of this is that we believe that you can do it cheaper than coal...and we want to make it happen now," said Page, Google's president of products. "Most people who are doing this now are trying to do it less expensive than people before, but they are not trying for that goal which will have a significant effect on the world."

Investments in other companies will be funded by Google's philanthropic arm,, which has about $2 billion worth of Google stock available to it.

In particular, Google will be investing in solar-thermal technology, wind power, and geothermal systems. Its target is to fall below the price of coal power generation, which can be as low as 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, said Bill Weihl, Google's green-energy czar.

Google said it's already working with eSolar, a solar-thermal company building systems for utilities to generate electricity from heat. It has invested in Makani Power, which is pursuing electricity generation by harnessing wind at high altitudes.

As part of the effort, Google will be hiring experts in the energy field. It expects to hire 20 to 30 people into its clean-energy division in the next year. More substantial investments will come as energy projects come online, Weihl said.

Although an ambitious plan, Google's impact on the clean-tech market segment in the near term is likely to be more psychological than financial, said Paul Clegg, a senior equity analyst who follows clean tech at Jefferies.

"Tens of millions of dollars is not a small number, obviously, but you're spreading that over things that a lot of other companies are attacking on an individual basis with more money going at it," Clegg said. "I think they'd have to invest a lot more money to get the next Manhattan Project going."

However, Google's initiative is significant in that it could indicate how corporations will start addressing their energy needs and climate change going forward, he said.

A strategic move
The push to mitigate the effects of climate change through clean energy falls squarely into's missions to improve human health and alleviate poverty, said Larry Brilliant, the executive director of

Its foray into the energy business is part of Google's corporate charter to expand into new business areas that are "strategic," according to Brin.

As a large consumer, Google can benefit from cheaper sources of electricity and technologies it successfully develops could generate revenue, he said. In addition, those technologies could potentially bring cheaper sources of electricity to areas of the world that don't have it.

"For economic development to be possible in these areas and for new industries to be spurred along, we want to develop cheap alternatives that are widely available," Brin said. "This isn't just about solving a problem. It also creates a gigantic opportunity."
Right now, the most widely used form of renewable energy in the United States is from hydropower, which makes up about 7 percent of power generation. Other renewables make up 2.4 percent, while coal-fired power plants generate nearly half of the power in the United States, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Google estimates that about 40 percent of power worldwide comes from burning coal, one of the most polluting fossil fuels.

Some renewable forms of power promise to approach the cost of fossil fuel production, notably solar thermal and wind, which both benefit from government incentives.

In an FAQ document, Google said it will pursue "enhanced geothermal technology that taps into heat underground to generate usable energy. It said this approach differs from traditional geothermal technology because it can be used nearly anywhere, rather than only in locations with specific geological features.

Avoiding hypocrisy
Google's intention to invest directly in power generation technologies is unusual for a business outside the energy sector.

Companies with environmental stewardship programs or commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions typically invest in on-site renewable energy or purchase carbon offsets that represent investments in clean-energy projects.

Wal-Mart, for example, has a high-profile program to make its stores more energy efficient by using the latest technologies, including solar photovoltaics. It has also done reviews with suppliers to reduce waste and packaging in its supply chain and stores

I would argue that Google's commitment to clean energy is a smart move.
Will it make fabulous riches from its investments? We won't know for a while. But in the meantime, its announcement has done exactly what the Googlers wanted--it focused people's attention, however briefly, on the importance of clean energy.

Judging from news articles and blogs, there are plenty of people in the "distraction" camp.

The reaction from ZDNet blogger Larry Dignan (writing for a site owned by parent company CNET Networks) was that Google should not do energy.

"I can't help but think Google is a company with too much cash on its hands and is spreading itself too thin," Dignan wrote.

One financial analyst told the New York Times that he thought the announcement was a "joke," calling the move into energy risky.

Others pointed out there are plenty of other technology companies doing as much if not more to save energy and address climate change

Renewable energy advocates were predictably quite happy with the news.

"It might strike some people as odd that Google would get into the renewable energy field, but I think of Google as a transformative technology company, and that philosophy is very welcome in the renewable energy business today," said Michael Eckhart, president of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE), in a statement.

To put things in perspective, philanthropy, not the corporation--will be investing hundreds of millions in clean energy companies. Google has committed to hire about 20 to 30 people in a new clean energy division in the next year who will do research and development. The money there will be in the tens of millions.

So the dollar amounts are not going to derail Google's core search and advertising business or its investments in Web applications.

Similarly, those investments won't rock the world of clean tech overnight. Venture capitalists are putting about $3 billion a year into the sector, and that's still a fraction of overall research and development from public corporations and government funding.

Where's the upside for Google? It can actually use the technology it develops or helps funds. Co-founder Larry Page said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday that it's likely that Google will do on-site power production, capture waste heat for electricity, and take other smart energy measures for its facilities.

Of course, if these innovative energy companies that is seeking out make lots of money, it stands to make some revenue.

What may seem odd is that Google is combining environmental leadership with business. Aren't those at odds?

If you need to clean up a brownfield site, then yes, being good to the environment is a financial drain. But the notion that businesses can profit from the world's woes is being tried and tested every day.

IBM first talked about its "Big Green Innovations" campaign earlier this year which focuses on computing energy efficiency as well as products and services in things like water conservation and solar technology.

Another obvious example is General Electric's Ecomagination, one of its fastest-growing initiatives.

In the end, what Google's trying to do is increase the speed of innovation in clean energy, which most people agree is needed. To do that, Google is investing in a potentially profitable field and using the rock star status (among geeks, anyway) of its founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to inspire energy entrepreneurs.

Tomorrow's Clapton playing 'Guitar Hero'

In a recent South Park episode, we see two of the show's main characters, Stan and Kyle, rocking out to the video game Guitar Hero as a roomful of their friends watch, rapt.

As they're playing, Stan's father walks in, asks, "You kids want to see something really cool?" and starts to play an electric guitar.

For a moment, the room is dead silent. Then, Stan asks, incredulously, "Dad, what are you doing?"

"I can actually play a lot of these songs on a real guitar," the father responds. "Want me to show you boys how?"

Stan spits back, "That's stupid, Dad."

Well, maybe not, say guitar teachers. In fact, the immense popularity of the hit Guitar Hero franchise--the third iteration of the game, Guitar Hero III, brought in $115 million during its first week on the market--may be the best thing that has happened to the instrument, to rock 'n' roll, and to guitar instructors, in a long time.

"I have an overwhelming feeling that my business is safe for years to come when I see kids playing Guitar Hero," said Dan Emery, owner of New York City Guitar School. "These kids are really enjoying playing Guitar Hero, and they're really being turned on to old classic rock" via the game.

Emery said he actually sees Guitar Hero as perhaps the best recruitment tool his school could have asked for.
"I fully expect that (kids who play the game) will get into their twenties and they will have disposable income and they will decide to actually play guitar and they're going to call us up," he said.

Exact numbers of Guitar Hero-fueled converts to the real thing (kids or adults) are hard to come by. But something at work here clearly could be the most powerful advertisement for the guitar since the hit Richard Linklater movie School of Rock.

In that film, Jack Black plays a teacher who, through sheer passion for music, turns a class of rock-illiterate elementary school students into a head-bobbing rock band. After the movie came out, San Francisco guitar teacher Jay Skyler said his roster of young students exploded overnight.

"All of a sudden, I had 9-year-old students," Skyler said, "because all of a sudden, everyone wanted a guitar."

But now, with Guitar Hero turning into one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, Skyler said it's not just kids who seem interested in playing the real instrument.

While some of his new adult students may not be willing to admit that the game drove them to him, he did suggest a definite cause and effect.

"My adult students, they don't want to cop to it," Skyler said of being Guitar Hero fans, "but they're all, 'Have you played the game?'"

The immense popularity of Guitar Hero does worry some of Skyler's fellow guitar teachers, who fret that the game may deter kids from being interested in picking up the real instrument. But Skyler doesn't share that concern, instead feeling that the long-term outcome will be positive.

"Basically, it's getting more kids into guitar," Skyler said. "So if you're a guitar teacher, or a band, you have to love it. They'll play with the toy for a while, but after awhile, they'll want the real thing."
There are those, of course, who believe Guitar Hero signals a death knell for real guitars.

"It's going to kill music," said San Diego bass instructor David Hilton. "It seems to me that as long as (Guitar Hero fans) can get really, really good playing this console, (and) it's not really easy to play (a real) instrument," that the guitar is dead
But Hilton's fears may well be in the minority, and the enthusiasm of teachers like Emery and Skyler indicate that there's a real chance the ultimate result of millions of people getting hooked on games like Guitar Hero and now Rock Band will be a new love of rock 'n' roll.

Part of the equation, Skyler said, is that Guitar Hero teaches rhythm.

"In the game, you have four buttons," he said. "You have to get them in time, in sequence. So in a sense, even though (you're) not learning the specific strings, you are building rhythm in a musical context, which is valuable."

Not only that, but the wide variety of songs included in the various editions of Guitar Hero may be opening up kids' ears to music they haven't previously been familiar with.

"It's also interesting kids in great bands of the past that they might not have been exposed to," Skyler said. "So I think we'll see a resurgence of rock. Rock 'n' roll is about fantasy. If you can go and you're having a good time (and saying), 'Hey, I'm jamming with Slash,' that's great."

Even more important, suggested Emery, is that the guitar is a unique instrument when it comes to the way people connect with it.

"The thing that drives guitar playing is not the same thing that drives violin playing (or) piano playing," Emery said. "It is the desire to connect with the spirit of rock 'n' roll, and anything that builds the spirit of rock 'n' roll is going to build the spirit of guitar."

And that, of course, is good for those in the business of teaching the instrument.

"When a kid gets filled with the fire of rock 'n' roll, they're going to practice four hours a day," Emery said. "Desire drives the guitar business. So I view (Guitar Hero) as a totally good thing.

Next vision :Google Eyes Online Storage

Google Inc. is preparing to take the covers off its own brand of hosted-storage services, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

The online storage subscription-based service may be ready for release early next year, according to the report. The service will reportedly include a limited amount of free storage with extra space available for an undisclosed price. Google officials could not be reached for comment this morning.

Increased mobility of end users and the rapid proliferation of stored digital content, including photos, video and music, is driving businesses and home users toward fixed fee-based online storage systems that can meet growing storage needs without relying on spinning and space-constrained hard drives.

Freedom to access personal storage files from any device or PC is another attraction of online storage. Armed with only a Web browser and password, users can quickly upload, share or see their files (which will reside on Google's servers) via a high-speed Internet connection. In particular, students and campuses have lauded the cost-effective data storage option.

Despite its vast resources, Google is a late entrant into the hosted-storage arena, observers noted. Microsoft Corp. in August announced its free 500MB online storage service dubbed Windows Live Skydrive. Another Google rival,, last month guaranteed 99.9% uptime for its year-old S3 online storage offering, while Facebook in September unveiled its open Data Store API program.

Even EMC Corp. has driven a stake into the hosted-storage landscape with its October agreement to buy start-up Berkeley Data Systems Inc. and its popular Mozy online backup One Google to Rule Them All?
Rumors that Google has planned a storage service have circulated for over a year. Technically, the Mountain View, Ca.-based company already provides storage through existing services like Gmail, Google Base and Google Docs.

"It's a natural extension of the fact that Google operates some of the world's largest data centers and has unique value-added features that it can add in terms of search and organization of the data," said Kurt Scherf, principal analyst at Parks Associates . "It looks like nice synergy, based on what they're already doing."

"Google has their finger in lots and lots of pies, and this is sort of a natural compliment to some of the things it is already offering," said Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata. "It makes sense that if you're going to offer all these things that use storage to tie storage itself in as well."

For Google, which has already made a substantial investment to build its data centers, this service is an opportunity to use its infrastructure as a revenue-generating service, Scherf said.

"It also gets Google one step closer to becoming a full-fledged applications company that is more consumer-facing. That's a benefit to them, as they are definitely pursuing the strategy of offering network-hosted applications, including both software and storage," Scherf told TechNewsWorld.

In addition, Google's status as the Internet's leading search engine will give the service a boost among consumers.

"For consumers, it's the benefit of knowing that the Google name behind the service means that finding and organizing their data is going to be enhanced because Google is really proficient at it," he continued. "It's also an intriguing consumer product -- British Telecom offers a Digital Vault service that is apparently doing quite well with consumers."

The Business of Storage
Providers such as Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) offer Web-based storage services. In particular, small businesses that may not have the resources to employ full-time IT professionals could also benefit from the ability to store data on a much larger network.

"Google's offering can be an opportunity for them to have really robust network-hosted storage that the big guys typically get," Scherf explained.

One of the things missing in the emerging online storage market is the ability for both consumers and businesses to back up their data, Haff told TechNewsWorld.

"There are some services out there, but none of the major industry players have thrown their weight behind those kinds of services. There could potentially be a lot of demand if a Google or somebody like that really creates awareness of backups," he explained.

Privacy Questions
Should Google roll out a storage system, it will have to ensure users that the service is safe and secure and also that it has instituted sufficient safeguards to protect users' privacy.

"There will have to be a privacy policy associated with it," Haff noted. "Safety is not specific to Google but a concern surrounding the online storage market as a whole. There are also concerns about possible subpoenas and how they will be handled.

Antarctica in High-Def :NASA Releases New, Interactive Map of the Bottom of the World

A map of Antarctica, produced by satellite technology, has images 10 times clearer than previously achieved and will aid scientists studying global warming on the continent, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

NASA used about 1,100 images from its Landsat 7 satellite recorded between 1999 and 2001, the administration said on its Web site. As a result, features half the size of a basketball court can be seen on the map known as the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica, it said.

U.S. and British researchers unveiled an 1,100-image photo mosaic of Antarctica on Tuesday that they say will change how scientists -- and desktop travelers alike -- will explore and learn about the icy continent at the bottom of the world.

The images were captured by the Landsat 7 satellite orbiting 400 miles above the Earth. Researchers from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic Survey digitally "stitched" together thousands of pictures to complete the mosaic.

The finished picture -- which has a resolution 10 times greater than ever before -- will help scientists study changing conditions in Antarctica. For example, the pictures will be used over time to track changes to the extent and thickness of ice sheets and glaciers, said NASA scientist Robert Bindschadler.
Bindschadler -- an Antarctic specialist who conceived the project -- calls the mosaic "a dream come true."

"It has changed my views of Antarctica and has influenced the science questions that I ask myself," Bindschadler said Tuesday at a press conference.

The Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica -- or LIMA -- shows features as small as half the size of a basketball court. Scientists say it will be especially useful in planning expeditions on the giant landmass -- the size of the continental United States and Mexico combined -- where clear images have been hard to come by.

Facilitates New Research
"Being able to see where we couldn't see before will lead to new ideas for research. And these new ideas for research will in turn lead to more knowledge about the continent," said Scott Borg, who directs Antarctic science programs for the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Scientists also hope the new image will help the public better understand what is at stake in the world's polar regions as temperatures rise due to human-created global warming.

"As society wrestles with the proper stewardship of the planet, it's really important to have an appreciation of what it is we're trying to preserve," Borg said.

An interactive version of the map can be found here, allowing anyone to zoom in and explore any part of the continent.
"It's like giving them a helicopter to explore Antarctica," said Bindschadler, who has led 14 expeditions there.

Antarctica is warming 10 times faster than the global average, said Andrew Fleming of the British Antarctic Survey. In recent years, scientists have seen collapsing ice sheets, changing coastlines, and retreating glaciers as the climate has warmed there, according to Fleming.

The LIMA effort is part of the International Polar Year, a multination research endeavor to explore and understand the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

"The climate of our world is changing no faster than in the polar regions," Bindschadler said. "In the future, we have to be better stewards of our environment."

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