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Legislative rumblings on climate change

I've argued in the past that climate change was no longer a scientific issue, but a series of economic and political issues that are now derived from the science. There's been a host of news on this front within the past few weeks, so a summary appears to be in order. One possible cause for the sudden upswing in news is the persistent rumor that President Bush's State of the Union address, which will be delivered next Tuesday, will contain a major new initiative to curb carbon emissions. The White House is currently confirming that there will be some sort of energy policy outlined in the address, but denies that it will include any mandatory caps. HangZhou Night Net

In Congress, however, the recent shift in power has energized legislators to push for carbon-limiting legislation that would have never made it to vote in the prior sessions. At least three bills are under discussion in the Senate. Despite White House opposition, all would create a mandatory cap on carbon emissions, and allow market trading of credits to give industries the chance to choose how best to balance emissions and expenditures. Two of these would begin reducing emissions by 2010, while a third would have them level off at slightly above today's emission rates by 2020. The widespread support within the Senate suggests that Bush will receive some legislation that includes a mandatory cap before the year is out.

The legislative efforts may be picking up a sense of urgency due to the wide array of groups lobbying for them. This week has seen two sets of unexpected bedfellows push for action on climate change. A combination of scientists and evangelical Christians released a statement in which they promised to work together to promote this sort of legislation. This statement built on a prior commitment to this sort of effort from prominent evangelicals. Meanwhile, a combination of environmental groups, energy generators, and major industrial companies (including GE, Alcoa, and Caterpillar) will release a statement on Monday calling for rapid and significant cuts in carbon emissions: 10-30 percent within 15 years. In part, they want legislation now because they feel that a combination of further evidence of warming and the potential for additional political changes over the next few years could both lead to even more stringent cuts in the near future. It may also be good business—GE noted a boom in sales of energy efficient equipment in recent years.

Not all of the action is happening in Washington, of course. California Governor Schwarzenegger's State of the State address included a call to go beyond earlier legislation on a statewide energy efficiency plan. He proposed a set of standards that would shift California to a greater use of carbon-neutral fuel sources. Meanwhile, the European Union has released a set of policy papers on energy that call for creating a single European energy market. With the market in place, carbon emissions would be targeted for a 20 percent reduction by 2020. Included in their plans would be carbon sequestration, a shift to renewable energy, and an increase in the use of biofuels.

All of this activity suggests an environment in which progress is being made in mandating a shift towards efficiency and renewable energy. That will provide the backdrop for the President's State of the Union next week. What remains to be seen is whether he will encourage this direction, or try to limit it.

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802.11n spec moves closer to completion

By a unanimous vote, the IEEE’s 802.11 working group has sent Draft 2.0 of the 802.11n WiFi spec out to the entire membership of the IEEE for approval. If it is approved by the membership, Draft 2.0 wil then become the basis for the final 802.11n spec.HangZhou Night Net

802.11n has been hailed as an ideal, easy-to-use home networking solution because of its speed and backward compatibility with the slower 802.11b and 802.11g wireless networking spec. 802.11n will have a maximum throughput of 600Mbps, but will typically operate at 200Mbps, about twice that of wired 100BaseT Ethernet and nearly four times the maximum of 802.11g.

Its relatively high speeds have networking companies excited, as there’s enough bandwidth to easily stream high-definition video wirelessly. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Ruckus Wireless treated me to a demo of their draft 802.11n equipment. Using their own hardware, they were able to simultaneously stream 1080p video to a couple of TVs while also streaming standard-def video to other devices. Very impressive, and a workable solution for getting HD content from one place to another without relying on coaxial cable or Cat 5e wire.

So-called "Draft N" 802.11 gear has been available for several months from major vendors, with most of them touting 802.11n’s 600Mbps ceiling. The rush to bring Draft N gear to market has actually outpaced the development of the spec itself, leading to some concerns over how well the early Draft N gear would work with the final spec. By mid-2006, Dell, Linksys, Belkin, D-Link, and many others were selling draft-compliant gear.

With the rush to bring faster WiFi gear to market, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced it would begin certifying 802.11n equipment in two waves. Starting in March, the Wi-Fi Alliance will certify products as being compliant with Draft 2.0. Once the spec is finalized later this year or in early 2008, products will then be certified as fully 802.11n compliant.

802.11n’s progress through the various steering committees and working groups has been much more arduous than the raft of products might lead one to believe. After Draft 1.0 was released in early 2006, Task Group N was deluged with over 12,000 comments—six times what was expected—as the draft spec lacked support from over half of the membership.

The big question facing early adopters right now is how well their Draft N equipment will work with Draft 2.0 as well as the final spec, which is expected to be something akin to Draft 2.0 with some minor tweaks. Many—but not all—wireless equipment vendors have promised that their equipment will be made compliant with the final spec via firmware updates. If that turns out to be the case, it should be smooth sailing from here to the final spec. Given the widespread agreement that Draft 2.0 will only need some very minor modifications in order to gain the "full" 802.11n designation, Draft 2.0-compliant equipment should be a safe choice for those with the itch to upgrade.

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First fruits of new e-voting certification process: two companies get thumbs-up from federal testers

How do Americans know that electronic voting machines are reliable? They have to trust the word of the private testing laboratories that examine the machines. But how do people know that the testing laboratories themselves are reliable? That’s where the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) comes in. As part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, the NIST is charged with providing technical guidance to the Election Assistance Commission as the EAC certifies testing laboratories. Yesterday, the NIST recommended that SysTest Labs and iBeta Quality Assurance receive the first full accreditations from the EAC.HangZhou Night Net

Six labs have currently applied for accreditation: SysTest, iBeta, InfoGuard, BKP Security, Wyle, and Ciber. Last summer, the EAC granted interim accreditation to Wyle and SysTest, though it found some documentation problems at Ciber and refused to give the company the green light. Now that the NIST process is firmly in place, interim accreditation will be replaced by a full accreditation process that takes 9 to 18 months to complete.

NIST bases its program on ISO/IEC 17025, a set of “General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories.” Because there are currently no standard tests for evaluating voting machines, each laboratory has created its own testing suite. NIST accreditation is designed to ensure that the testing process at each lab can produce precise data with repeatable results, not that the tests themselves are well-designed.

Recognizing that this is a weakness, NIST will start development work this year on a standard series of tasks that all laboratories will eventually be encouraged to adopt. There is no word on when the new tests will be ready.

The government does require seven basic areas to be tested. Voting machines first need to be evaluated to make sure they conform to federal design standards, and then they are run through a physical configuration audit in which the lab makes sure that the machine actually matches the documentation. The third part of the test is a source code review, followed by a functional configuration audit that tries to determine if every function mentioned in the manual actually exists and works. A system integration test, reliability and accuracy tests, and security testing round out the requirements.

Now that the EAC has received the first two NIST recommendations, it still needs to act on them for the accreditation to become official.

The EAC also issued a letter last week asking both voting machine manufacturers and testing labs to refrain from political activity. Saying that the companies involved had a “significant responsibility as the public places its trust in these organizations,” the EAC asked labs and manufacturers to “adopt policies that prohibit the organization and its employees from engaging in act of these that may create the appearance of a conflict of interest or partisan bias.”

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Friday afternoon Apple links

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Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books from when you were a kid? You can get them online now, but not just in book form. The CYOA store has an entire section devoted to iPod downloads (even though there's only one product there right now), where you can choose your own adventure using your iPod instead. The first (and only) selection right now is available as a free demo.On the topic of remembering things from ages past, remember Cookbook, one of the winners of My Dream App? The neat little cooking/recipe/everything else application is actually in the process of being developed. The team has apparently been working on the UI and programming for a while now, and there's even a screenshot of what they have so far.Erika Jonietz from MIT's Technology Review says that, after being a die-hard Windows "apologist" (her own words) for more than 20 years, playing with Windows Vista has driven her to become a Mac fan. She only reviewed RC1 however, and only played with it for a month. But ouch. Them's some pretty harsh words.Disney's has hired ex-iTunes executive Martin Morales to run the European arm of the business. Morales' "knowledge of the digital market would
help," Disney says, as the company "seeks to strengthen its business throughout Europe."

A company named OPTi is suing Apple over patent infringement. The chip-maker says that Apple has stepped on its toes regarding "predictive snooping," a method by which to more efficiently transfer information between the CPU, memory, and "other devices." The suit was filed just this week in Marshall, Texas.If you're into Twitter (a social networking system in which short SMS-length messages are distributed to and from your network of small friends via SMS, IM, and the Web) you should check out the Iconfactory's newest free application called Twitterific, the design is awesome. Don't forget to add Clint and Jacqui as friends once you get it going!

Have a good weekend, everybody. I officially turn one year older this weekend (actually technically on Monday), so you know I'll be partying it up all weekend long. Maybe I'll buy myself a new music player. I hear brown is the new black these days.

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iPhone interface analysis from an actual usability expert. Gasp!

Bruce Tognazzini is probably not a name that most of you are familiar with, but his associations might ring a bell. Tognazzini (nicknamed "Tog," kind of like Woz) is a member of the Nielsen Norman Group—that's Nielsen, as in Jakob Nielsen, one of the most world renown usability experts. Donald A. Norman and Bruce Tognazzini are two of Nielsen's esteemed colleagues, and Tog himself was hired personally by Steve Jobs and interface god Jef Raskin back in 1978 as a founder of the Human Interface Group at Apple. HangZhou Night Net

Since leaving the company many years, later, Tog has made a name for himself as a "harsh critic" of many things Apple, including the atrocity that was the hockey puck mouse and the dock in OS X. That's why, as he puts it in his recent column on the iPhone User Experience, his reaction to the iPhone is "most unusual" and Kind Of A Big Deal™.

So now that we've established exactly who Tog is and why you should care about what he says, let's get onto… well, what he says.

Tog has a lot of great things to say about the iPhone, as well as a lot of critiques. He first goes into detail about how every single "innovation" in the iPhone is about ten billion years old to most usability researchers, but acknowledges that things can take an extremely long time to trickle down into public consumption and common use, using the mouse as a prime example. "I’ve been pushing multi-touch gestural for over 20 years myself, beginning while I was still at Apple, incredulous that everyone has been ignoring it. Apple stopped ignoring it," he says.

Without actually being able to play with the iPhone firsthand (only the blessed can do that, apparently), Tog goes in and picks some nits with various usability elements of the iPhone as a phone, an iPod, and an internet communicator. The article is long, but extremely insightful, so I highly recommend you actually read it after reading this post. However, here's my summary of Tog's opinions on the iPhone for you:

Loves:

Gives ordinary people widespread access to technologies that have otherwise been very limited for public consumption (such as multitouch and whatnot)Very approachable, even for older folksVisual, random-access voicemail. "It's about time."

Hates:

Five hour battery life, and non-replaceable battery (without a crowbar…). "That’s a bad interface," Tog says. Relying on public WiFi ("Public WiFi is a mess") for Internet access, or expensive cell networks affect fundamental reliabilitySMS, e-mail, and voicemail are all separated out as much as possible. "I should not have to visit three different places on my phone every few minutes to see what is happening."Widgets are the only add-on path for the iPhone. "I can only hope that changes."Needs a keyboard. Touchscreen keyboard is nice and all, but not good for extended use and takes up much of the screen.

Nits:

Desperately needs to be tested for ruggedness (is that a hint for me, Tog?)SMS should include an interpreter to expand upon common abbreviationsCamera should be higher resolutionFacial recognition "would be a plus"iPod interface potentially confusing, much more complex than phone interfaceSafari browser on iPhone may and may not be forgiving to web pages that are not totally strict on HTML. Forgiving will be much better in the long run than not.Maps on the iPhone should just "know" where you are and tell you how far, distance and time-wise, you are from appointments that are on your calendar

"There’s lots to do tomorrow, not only in expanding the capabilities of iPhone, but in more tightly integrating the features already offered," Tog says. "However, while this first iPhone may not be the be-all and end-all, neither was the original Mac." He believes that the iPhone, nits and all, is still revolutionary as far as cell phones go, and he's excited to see what the future—and Apple—brings to the little device in the years to come.

"Traditional cell phones are dull, limited, and at end-of-life. iPhone is glorious, and it is only the beginning."

(I hear that our own John Siracusa is a big Tog fan, and was glad that Tog wrote this article so that he wouldn't have to write his own.)

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Gears of War hits the 3 million-sold mark, so why aren’t more people getting the free maps?

Yesterday I took a look at how Gears of War has stood up since its release, and I was pleased with what I saw. Free maps, a strong community, a good patch, and the game is still a blast to play. Microsoft has now announced in a press release that the game has sold an astounding 3 million copies; that certainly makes Gears of War one of the biggest franchises on the market right now. Let's dig a little deeper at these numbers though and see if we can find anything interesting. HangZhou Night Net

Expanding on its reign as the fastest-selling title of 2006 and the fastest-selling original exclusive Xbox ® game of all time, "Gears of War" has captivated gamers across the globe with its action-packed single-player campaign, thrilling online modes and recently released multiplayer maps, Raven Down and Old Bones. Since the downloadable content's release via Xbox Live ® Marketplace less than two weeks ago, the new maps have garnered an astounding 750,000 downloads. There have been more than 1.5 million total downloads of all "Gears of War" content currently available via Marketplace, including the maps, themes and video walkthrough, by gamers who can't get enough of Delta Squad and the Locust Horde.

One of the reasons why Gears of War was such an important title was that it helped to sell the hardware and to get people online. But look at those numbers: only 25 percent of gamers who have Gears of War have downloaded the free maps. I'd be very curious to know why that is, although it would be hard to find out why unless you wanted to go around and ask 2,250,000 people why they didn't download the free maps. This is why we need interns.

Are that many people not online with their 360s? Do they not know the maps are out there? Have they simply stopped caring about online play already? Overall these numbers are great; Microsoft and Epic must be ecstatic. But still, why would 75 percent of Gears of War owners turn down free maps?

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Guitar Hero 1 songs in Guitar Hero 2, and the best interview answer ever… twice!

If you've ever wondered just how canned responses to interviews can be, let me draw your attention to two interviews with Dusty Welch, RedOctane's head of publishing. With news that Neversoft is now working on developing new Guitar Hero games there is suddenly a lot of interest in what's going on with the franchise. Let's take a look at the interview. First, Gamespot: HangZhou Night Net

GS: Why isn't Harmonix still developing the Guitar Hero franchise? How much of it is due to Harmonix being bought by MTV?

DW: We have tremendous respect for, and greatly appreciate, everything that Harmonix has done for the Guitar Hero franchise. Their vision has always aligned with ours from the start. In looking toward the future, we believe it was a natural and neutral decision for us to look at other opportunities. We look forward to partnering with Neversoft's development team and can't wait to show our fans what we have in store for them.

That's a great, bland, corporate answer. I feel tired just reading it. This is a common question though, and of course Gamedaily is going to ask something close to it. Let's watch!

BIZ: Some believe that because Harmonix was acquired by MTV, that had something to do with this Guitar Hero move. Any truth to that?

DW: We have tremendous respect for, and greatly appreciate, everything that Harmonix has done for the Guitar Hero franchise. Their vision has always aligned with ours from the start. In looking toward the future, we believe it was a natural and neutral decision for us to look at other opportunities. We look forward to partnering with Neversoft's development team, and can't wait to show our fans what we have in store for them.

Oh dear sweet Miyamoto, he has that memorized? I wonder if they work out flash cards with set answers for these questions; does one have to study for stuff like this? The interviews are both filled with non-talk and feel-good answers to the questions, so don't expect much in the way of surprising revelations. Here is the one thing that gave me cause to celebrate:

GS: Will Xbox 360 Guitar Hero II owners ever have access to the songs from the original Guitar Hero?

DW: While the songs that will be available for download through the Xbox Live Marketplace have yet to be confirmed, we can assure our fans that they can likely expect to see these songs. Through the feedback we've received from fans and from reading the message boards and other forums, we know that this is what everyone wants because of the awesome set list from some of the most legendary rock bands and artists ever!

Very cool.

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Gene silencing by a triple helix

The dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) gene is typically viewed as what's called a housekeeping gene. It provides basic and essential functions to dividing cells (it helps produce the bases used in DNA and RNA), and would be considered uninteresting if it weren't the target for some forms of chemotherapy. Despite being a bit mundane, however, a paper that will appear in Nature suggests that the regulation of the gene is anything but dull. Two promoters, interfering RNAs, and a DNA-DNA-RNA triple helix all play a role in keeping this gene expressed only when cells need it. HangZhou Night Net

Like many genes, DHFR has more than one promoter (diagrammed above)—the site at which proteins bind to kick off the process of making an RNA message (mRNA) out of the gene. When cells are dividing, the gene is active and 99 percent of the mRNAs start at the second promoter, which we'll call Pn for normal. When cells stop dividing, most of the mRNA starts at the first promoter, which we'll call Pi for reasons that will become clear later. The researchers were surprised to find, however, that these messages didn't actually contain the full sequence needed to make functional DHFR protein—instead, the stopped shortly after Pn.

The researchers speculated that the Pi activity might inhibit (hence the i) the function of Pn. Did this effect require the two promoters to be linked on the same strand of DNA? The researchers answered this by putting both promoters on separate pieces of DNA. Even when separated, expression of the a normal RNA from the Pi blocked mRNA expression from Pn. They also showed that the inhibitory activity of the RNA made from Pi required sequences from the Pn area. If a sequence was inserted between Pi and Pn that stopped the Pi messages before they reached Pn, the inhibitory effect vanished.

All of which raises the question of what the Pi RNA is doing. The researchers got a hint that it was physically acting at the Pn. They discovered that the presence of the Pi RNA interfered with the binding of Pn by proteins needed for mRNA production. In other words, when the Pi RNA was present, the proteins weren't, and Pn was inactive. Scanning the area around Pn revealed a few stretches of sequence that can undergo an unusual form of base pairing. With DNA still base paired normally, the RNA bases can pair with the exterior of the those on the DNA, forming a triple helix. They confirmed that this actually takes place by running an assay that physically separated the double-stranded DNA from the DNA-RNA complex.

The paper is significant in part because it comes at a time where we're increasingly recognizing the important role that non-coding RNAs play in regulating gene expression. Past results have shown a number of examples where RNAs have either targeted mRNAs for degradation or blocked their use in protein production. The new paper suggests yet another way that non-coding RNAs can regulate gene expression. Because researchers have some sense of the sequences that can form a triple helix, it's possible that genome-wide analysis of promoters can identify other candidates for this sort of regulation.

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Iowa antitrust trial opens Microsoft skeleton closet

Back in September, Ars reported that Microsoft would begin fighting a class-action lawsuit alleging that the Redmond company violated Iowa's antitrust laws. The trial, which began on November 13, has received a significant amount of media attention lately. Last week, plaintiffs in the case claimed that they have evidence from the discovery process showing that Microsoft failed to disclose application programming interfaces (APIs) to its competitors. Now, e-mails from Jim Allchin, the co-president of Microsoft's platforms and services division, have surfaced as evidence in the case revealing that Microsoft was seeking a possible partnership with Apple, or for that matter, planning to create its own digital media device. HangZhou Night Net

Allchin's e-mails show a company discontented with its partners who were leveraging Windows Media technologies to build digital music devices. Those companies included Dell and Creative. "My goodness it's terrible," the Windows chief said of Creative's devices. "What I don't understand though is I was told the new Creative Labs device would be comparable to Apple. That is so not the case."

Because Allchin feared that the combination of iTunes and the iPod would lure users away from Windows Media Player, he suggested that the company strike partnership discussions with Apple's Steve Jobs. Allchin was hoping that Jobs would allow for iPod integration with Windows Media Player. The final outcome of whatever may have happened was the creation of the Zune, Microsoft's first attempt at creating a portable music device.

Allchin's words for Microsoft partners were harsh, but he was not the first executive to be singled out in the Comes v. Microsoft case. A speech by James Plamondon, former Microsoft technical evangelist, has also become public during the trial where he labels independent software developers "pawns."

"If you've ever tried to play chess with only the pieces in the back row, you've experienced losing, OK, because you've got to have those pawns…They're essential. So you can't win without them, and you have to take good care of them. You can't let them feel like they're pawns in the struggle. I mean, all through this presentation previously, I talked about how you're using the pawns and you're going to screw them if they don't do what you want, and dah-dah-dah. You can't let them feel like that. If they feel like that, you've lost from the beginning…So you can't let them feel like pawns, no matter how much they really are."

Plamondon apologized for his speech (given in 1996) two weeks ago.

The timing for all these nasty tidbits to slip out is terrible for Microsoft. The company has several large software releases on the horizon, and the Zune is only a few months old. Will this news affect push people away from Microsoft products? No, but it's still bad for public relations. Then again, isn't any PR good PR?

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Month of Apple Bugs: Week 3

We're back with our third look at the past week's news coming out of the Month of Apple Bugs project. As with last week's coverage, there's a healthy mix of security disclosure and internet drama in this week's reports. HangZhou Night Net

But first, the bugs themselves, which once again comprise a mix of Apple and third-party software. Let's begin with the Apple ones, which include privilege escalation vulnerabilities in several setuid binary files within the /Applications hierarchy. The most insidious problem with this particular exploit is that a clever cracker can replace one of these binaries, hence being able to take advantage of Apple's own permissions repair functionality to erase his or her tracks. Other Apple-specific bugs include a buffer overflow in the slpd (Service Location Protocol) daemon and a format string vulnerability in iChat's URL handler. Both of these issues can lead to denial-of-service conditions, and the iChat bug could theoretically allow arbitrary code execution.

The other bugs concern third-party Mac applications, such as Transmit's buffer overflow when dealing with sftp:// URIs and multiple issues with improper system() calls by Rumpus, Maxum's file management server system for Macs. The Rumpus vulnerabilities are especially concerning because the service runs with elevated privileges, so an exploit could theoretically gain control of an entire system.

Then there's the Colloquy IRC client bug, which gets the nod for this week's controversy generator. The story is a bit confusing, but as near as we can suss out it goes something like this: last Wednesday, the MoAB crew published an exploit for Colloquy involving a format string vulnerability, which included a sample exploit against an unnamed IRC channel. As it turns out, however, this unnamed channel appears to have actually been #macdev on Freenode IRC, and the MoAB crew were allegedly using the exploit against Colloquy users prior to listing it on their site. The MoAB gang denies this, while others claim to have proof of their actions. Who's right? Who knows. At any rate, it's pretty clear that the MoAB crew and the folks from Unsanity are, if possible, even less enamoured with each other than they were last week. This makes the debate over Iraq look like a parking ticket dispute, doesn't it? (By the way, the Colloquy developers released a patch later that day, so if you use the application, make sure you tell it to check for recent updates.)

At this point, about the only absolute fact is this: after three weeks of all kinds of accusations, counter-accusations, insults, veiled threats, and general internet asshattery, there are still no official fixes from Apple for any of the documented security vulnerabilities (as of this afternoon).

(However, there is an unofficial fix for the issues related to permission repair, created by a Mac Achaia poster; see this link for details.)

We also invite you again to keep up to date on the most recent developments through our forum thread on the topic.

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