An Ohio power company wants to reverse the deregulation it once fought for

in environment on (#N2PB)
story imageA major test case is underway in Ohio, where a utility company is trying to undo deregulation in an attempt to keep expensive and aging coal and nuclear plants on-line. FirstEnergy pushed hard for deregulation back in 2008 and got a $6 billion payout from consumers to cover its stranded assets. Now, the company says it wants to be guaranteed revenues from expensive coal and nuclear power generation. Critics of the plan say this amounts to a public subsidy for FirstEnergy. In fact, Barrett says, “calculations have been done that say over a 15-year [period], consumers of electricity might end up subsidizing FirstEnergy to the tune of some $3 billion." In essence, FirstEnergy now believes the deregulation it once fought for should be scrapped.

It is an ironic turn of events for FirstEnergy. In the early 2000s the company had substantial holdings in coal-fired generating plants, which at the time were by far the cheapest way to generate electricity. But now the marketplace has changed. Plentiful and low-price natural gas has begun to undercut all other energy sources. And solar and wind are becoming more cost-efficient pretty steadily over time. Coal-fired plants that had been generating healthy profit margins are no longer economical to run. FirstEnergy argues that coal-fired plants should be preserved, and updated, because “they can provide a steady reliable base-load source of energy.” FirstEnergy also warns that natural gas prices will not remain low forever. Years from now, they say, their coal plants and nuclear operations will be more economical and consumers will be thanking them for keeping them open.

20th anniversary of the teen cyberpunk thriller "Hackers"

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On September 15, 1995, Hackers was released in the theaters to a relative thud, recovering less than half its production budget at the box office. But the tale of a group of high school hackers—with cool-sounding hacker handles like “Zero Cool” and “Acid Burn”—stumbling upon a grand corporate conspiracy found a second life on home video, becoming a cult classic two decades later.

Directed by Iain Softley the film is all sorts of dated. There's some unknown punk named Angelina Jolie, the nebulously famous Fisher Stevens. Matthew Lillard's in it, and so is Marc Anthony. Everyone rollerblades or skateboards. Visually dazzling and oddly optimistic, Hackers is more than a cheesy techno-thriller from the mid '90s, it's a smart, energetic story about teenage rebellion with a genuine interest in what was once a small but thriving subculture.

The Internet and technology have changed greatly since Hackers‘ release, yet even with 20 years of technological progress, code still doesn’t float around your screen as mathematical functions in 3D. And the prominently featured payphones, floppy disks, acoustic coupled modems, techno-arcades and pagers are becoming a bit difficult to find for today's aspiring hackers.

Verizon rejects federal money to build rural broadband

in internet on (#MVXC)
story imageThe Federal Communications Commission recently announced which telecom companies will receive federal subsidies through the Connect America Fund to bring 10Mbps Internet service to parts of rural America. Surprisingly, Verizon Communications refused the funds entirely, in comparison to chief competitor AT&T, which will receive $427 million in funding even though it argued last year that rural customers don't need Internet service better than the old standard of 4Mbps downstream. Verizon Communications turned down a reported $568 million (over six years) in federal funds to bring broadband to 270,000 locations in Washington, DC, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.”

The Communication Workers of America noted this is not the first time Verizon has rejected subsidies aimed at serving poor communities. The company previously rejected over $500 million from the New York Broadband Fund, which offered up to 50% subsidies to companies willing to build high-speed service in underserved areas. CWA noted in its press release, “For years, Verizon has steadfastly refused to bring its high-speed internet service (or FiOS) to areas like Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, Rome, Utica and numerous other upstate New York cities, as well as much of Eastern Suffolk.” CWA is currently embattled in an ongoing labor dispute with Verizon over the contract renewal of the 39,000 Verizon employees it represents. But whatever the source, between Verizon's announcement that it won't continue its FIOS deployments in new cities, it's refusal of federal money, opposition to FCC rules on allowing copper networks to decay, and selling-off its assets in California, Texas and Florida, it's clear Verizon doesn't consider its wired communications part of the company's future.

Copyright holders must consider fair use exceptions before sending DMCA takedown notices

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A federal appeals court in San Francisco today affirmed that copyright holders must consider whether a use of material is fair before sending a DMCA takedown notice. The ruling came in Lenz v. Universal, often called the “dancing baby” lawsuit. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) represents Stephanie Lenz, who—back in 2007—posted a 29-second video to YouTube of her children dancing in her kitchen. The Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy” was playing on a stereo in the background of the short clip. Universal Music Group sent YouTube a notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), claiming that the family video infringed the copyright in Prince’s song. EFF sued Universal on Lenz’s behalf, arguing that Universal abused the DMCA by improperly targeting a lawful fair use.

Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that copyright holders like Universal must consider fair use before trying to remove content from the Internet. It also rejected Universal’s claim that a victim of takedown abuse cannot vindicate her rights if she cannot show actual monetary loss. Universal will now have to face a trial over whether it "knowingly misrepresented" its "good faith belief the video was not authorized by law." The judges have made clear that copyright owners "must consider fair use before sending a takedown notification" before forming that "good faith belief." The fair use consideration doesn't have to be "searching or intensive," Tallman clarified. But it can't be trivial, either.

Today, DMCA notices are automated, and large copyright holders demand that thousands of links be removed at a time. Internet sites like Google remove millions of URLs each year in response to these massive DMCA notices. While today's ruling undoubtedly strengthens EFF's view of fair use, it's unlikely to change much about the millions of takedown notices now being sent each year to Internet intermediaries.

FCC busts Lyft and First National Bank for forcing customers to accept robocalls & spam texts

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story imageUnder the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, any company wanting to make robocalls to consumers must obtain “prior express written consent.” Additionally, the consumer must not be required to agree to accept these calls “as a condition of purchasing any property, goods, or services.” But the FCC says First National Bank and Lyft violated these rules by telling people that if they wanted to be customers of these businesses, they had to accept robocalls or spam texts.

While the First National citation appears pretty cut-and-dry, the Lyft citation is a little more complicated. The ridesharing service’s Terms of Service automatically opt-in a customer to robocalls and texts. The company claims in the terms that it offers an “unsubscribe” option but no details could be found on the Lyft site for avoiding robocalls. And stopping marketing texts from Lyft was only possible by stopping all texts from Lyft, including security confirmation texts needed to log in to one’s Lyft account. “In other words, exercising the option to decline marketing messages made it impossible to use Lyft’s services,” reads the citation, which deems Lyft’s opt-out representation as “illusory in nature.”

The FCC has given both companies 30 days to reply to the citations and called on them to cease the allegedly unlawful practices. Failure to comply could result in fines of up to $16,000 for each future violation or for each day of a continued violation.

SpaceX rocket grounded for a 'couple more months'

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SpaceX plans to keep its Falcon 9 rocket grounded longer than planned following a launch accident in June that destroyed a space station cargo ship. "We’re taking more time than we originally envisioned, but I don’t think any one of our customers wants us to race to the cliff and fail again,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said. The cause of the June accident is "an easy problem to go fix," Shotwell said, adding the company would take extra time to "make sure we’re not seeing something like that anywhere throughout the vehicle or the supply chain.”

The June 28 accident is believed to have been triggered by a flawed support strut in the rocket's upper-stage engine. The metal strut broke about two minutes after the rocket lifted off from Florida, releasing a bottle of helium that caused the second-stage engine to become over-pressurized. Seconds later, the rocket exploded over the Atlantic Ocean. A Dragon cargo ship was destroyed when it hit the water. The accident, along with the failed Oct. 28 launch of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket, has left NASA dependent on Russia and Japan to resupply the $100 billion International Space Station

SpaceX has a backlog of nearly 60 launches, worth more than $7 billion, on its schedule. SpaceX also has been cleared to compete against industry stalwart United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, to fly U.S. military satellites.

Verizon, T-Mobile oppose delaying LTE-U to test WiFi interference claims

in internet on (#M5FX)
story imageThe debate over LTE-Unlicensed is heating up after the Wi-Fi Alliance asked the Federal Communications Commission to postpone equipment testing that uses unlicensed spectrum until the Wi-Fi industry group can run its own tests to make sure that the technology does not interfere with traditional Wi-Fi. Recently, U.S. carriers Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile US teamed up with major equipment manufacturers Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Qualcomm to write its own letter urging the FCC to oppose the Wi-Fi Alliance’s proposal, which could halt Verizon Wireless’ plans to begin deploying LTE-U in the 5 GHz band beginning in 2016, as well as T-Mobile US’ goal of using the technology in its smartphones by the end of this year.

Companies such as Microsoft and big cable companies support further testing. Microsoft said it worries that the LTE-U signal could “degrade the performance of services delivered over Wi-Fi.” Big cable TV and Internet companies are worried that their investments in Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the country could be greatly impacted if there is interference from LTE-U. “Research demonstrates that both LTE-U and LAA would severely decrease the performance of any nearby Wi-Fi network. Widespread deployment of LTE-U or LAA would therefore harm American consumers, schools, and innovators by dramatically reducing the utility of the unlicensed bands for everyone but the companies that already hold licensed spectrum,” the NCTA said in its letter to the FCC. “Furthermore, there is already a growing amount of research, such as that published by Google and CableLabs…indicating that Wi-Fi networks will be negatively impacted by the current version of LTE-U technology. The risk to users who depend on Wi-Fi every day for their connectivity needs is too great.”

Alaska’s quest to power remote villages

in environment on (#M5BV)
story imageMost people think the quest to electrify rural parts of the US was something that happened in the 1950s, but remote Alaskan villages still depend on flying-in barrels of diesel, priced as high as $10 per gallon, to power generators, with electricity prices of more than 40 cents per kilowatt hour — and that’s after state subsidizes to equalize energy costs. “The last thing people who live in a place known for cold, dark and distance need is higher energy prices.”

Clearly, renewable energy would be a great benefit to Alaska’s small villages — but there are unique hurdles to deploying it. Solar, for instance, is less useful in the long dark night of the northern winter. And that’s when electricity costs, due to home heating, are highest. So what can displace diesel? The Alaskan landscape offers several potential energy sources — wind, tidal or river power, and geothermal energy. The trick, though, is getting the costs down, and then successfully integrating them into remote energy systems, where every time you add a power source to the mix, you also add complexity.

A new generation of water-based research focuses on tapping the energy of tides, waves and undammed river flows. River power has its advantages — a steady flow, able to provide a reliable form of baseline power — but also unique challenges. Perhaps the biggest one is that debris, especially floating logs and tree branches, can clog or damage turbines. One approach being pursued is a compact, doughnut-shaped turbine with relatively short and thin blades. River energy holds great potential. For three months of the summer when rivers are flowing, research suggests that turbines could fully power villages. “That three months, there’s enough density in the water coming through, that that could equal or be greater than 12 months of wind power.”

See also:

Netflix claims you don’t really want offline video support

in movies on (#M0VY)
story imageNow that Amazon Prime is allowing offline video playback on iOS and Android devices, Netflix needs a better explanation for why it won’t do the same. Previously, Netflix has argued that fast, ubiquitous Wi-Fi access would eventually make offline playback irrelevant. But in 2015, on-the-go users still struggle with getting connected, whether it’s on a plane with Wi-Fi that’s too slow, or in a car where a few hours of streaming on mobile broadband can burn through your data cap.

Unfortunately, Netflix’s new excuse is even worse. Speaking to Gizmodo, Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt argued that offline playback is just too complex for people to handle. He described this as the “Paradox of Choice,” explaining that when you give people too many options, they end up not choosing anything at all. Netflix apparently believes offline playback would result in this sort of paralysis. In lieu of crippling users with choice, Hunt said Netflix could install local media servers on airplanes, trains, or hotels, so users can stream without an Internet connection. Can Netflix really install its entire catalog in local servers on every means of public transport? Besides which, Netflix is still talking about things it would like to do in theory, while Amazon is providing a service that’s actually useful right now.

Google’s driverless cars run into problems with human drivers

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Since 2009, Google self-driving cars have been in 16 crashes, mostly fender-benders. Google claims a human was at fault in every single case. While quick to blame human drivers and even to label them as “idiotic” Google admits the need for “smoothing out” the relationship between the car’s software and humans. Google cars regularly take quick, evasive maneuvers or exercise caution in ways that are both cautious, but also out of step with the other vehicles on the road, clashing with actual human behavior.

One Google car, in a test in 2009, couldn’t get through a four-way stop because its sensors kept waiting for other (human) drivers to stop completely and let it go. The human drivers kept inching forward — paralyzing Google’s robot. Humans and machines, it seems, are an imperfect mix. A 2012 insurance industry study that surprised researchers found that cars with lane departure warning systems experienced a slightly higher crash rate than cars without them. That highlights a clash between the way humans actually behave and how the cars wrongly interpret that behavior.

On a recent outing with New York Times journalists, the Google driverless car took two evasive maneuvers that simultaneously displayed how the car errs on the cautious side, but also how jarring that experience can be. In one maneuver, it swerved sharply in a residential neighborhood to avoid a car that was poorly parked. Then as it approached a red light the laser system sensed that a vehicle coming the other direction was approaching the red light at higher-than-safe speeds. The Google car immediately jerked to the right in case it had to avoid a collision. In the end, the oncoming car did stop well in time.