Bovine power may greet some delayed OLPC laptops

The official launch of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project's XO laptop has been pushed back after additional production delays. Production was originally expected to begin in this month, but will now start in early November. HangZhou Night Net

In an interview with Reuters, OLPC chief technology officer Mary Lou Jepsen has stated that the delays were the result of "last-minute bugs" that have already been resolved.

This latest delay will have a negative impact on OLPC's Give One Get One (G1G1) initiative, which allows consumers in developed countries to obtain a single XO laptop by donating the cost of two XO laptops. The G1G1 initiative will still be rolled out in time for the holidays, but availability of XO laptop units will be limited as a result of the production delay. Jepsen encourages G1G1 consumers to order early, since the available units will move quickly.

The G1G1 program is seen as a change in strategy for OLPC that was made necessary because sales to governments have been slow. OLPC is also looking for handouts from major donors. In the wake of price hikes which have brought the cost of an XO laptop to $188, potential government buyers are unwilling to commit to purchasing XO laptops in bulk. OLPC is altering its approach to compensate for the tough sales environment and no longer expects participating governments to shell out for the previously-stated minimum of 1 million laptops.

Although OLPC is having difficulty making sales, there have been some positive changes lately. Some countries that have been playing hard-to-get have now reconsidered and are once again negotiating with OLPC. In India, for instance, where an education minister once referred to the laptops as "pedagogically suspect," OLPC has managed to get a pilot test program running and is now working with local governments in the country.

Image courtesy of the OLPC Development Site

In related news, the OLPC project is considering the use of cows to provide power for the laptops in India. In a mailing list post, Arjun Sarwal of OLPC India describes how the cow-powered generator that is being developed by OLPC. "We plan to drive a dynamo (taken from an old Fiat) through a system of belts and pulleys using cows/cattle," wrote Sarwal. Citing the lack of water sources, consistent sunlight, or strong wind, Sarwal decided to use cattle, since they are present in great abundance in India. "The solution is of course not a one-for-all solution, but is an example of how locally available mechanisms can be leveraged to charge the laptops."

Despite delays and climbing prices, interest in the OLPC project remains high. It's unclear, however, whether or not the OLPC project will continue to look compelling as other low-cost mobile computing products begin to reach the market. The Asus Eee PC release, for instance, was officially announced earlier this month. Asus offers the subnotebook for as little as $299 and is already selling it in bulk to governments.

Cosmic cold spot ascribed to phase transition

Back at the end of August, Chris Lee described a discovery that was a bit of a stumper. The WMAP probe, which has been refining our picture of the cosmic microwave background, found what appears to be a cosmic cold spot: an exceptionally large area of space that’s apparently more or less empty. The probabilities of this occurring by chance are vanishingly small, and it has left cosmologists scratching their heads. HangZhou Night Net

A number of them apparently stopped scratching and started calculating, and the fruits of some of that labor are being released by Science today. The authors of the paper have done calculations that suggest the cold spot is a remnant of an exotic form of phase transition that took place early in the history of the universe. This is something that has been kicked around by the theorists for decades, but hasn’t been observed as of yet.

The idea behind the phenomenon is that, at very high energies, some particles become “symmetric”—they are functionally interchangeable, and can’t be distinguished. As the universe expanded after the big bang, it gradually cooled, diluting the average energy density. This cooling should sporadically drop the energy below the point where some forms of symmetry are maintained and, because of the irregularities in the universe’s cooling observed by WMAP, the breaking of symmetry should happen unevenly.

The net result is that neighboring areas of the universe will be at states above and below the symmetry point. This creates a situation vaguely analogous to the phase change between liquid water and ice, where there is a fundamental discontinuity between the two regions. In the cosmic version, the phase change boundary should cause significant changes in the wavelength of light that crosses it, potentially creating a relatively “cold,” or red-shifted, patch in the microwave background (hot patches should also occur).

How likely is this exotic explanation? Compared to the obvious alternative explanation—a combination of instrument error and random fluctuations—pretty likely, according to the authors. They did a Bayesian analysis of the probabilities of both, and found that the phase shift was a more probable solution. In addition, the work suggested that phase changes should cause only one cold spot large enough to detect at the resolution that we’ve currently achieved in our measurements of the cosmic background radiation.

The phase change explanation also provides two testable predictions, namely that we’ll find more of these when we get better resolution maps, and that a certain amount of polarization should be detectable in the area at the edges of the cold spot. The size of the cold spot also places an eye popping number on the energy at which the phase change took place: 8.7 × 1015 GeV. The Nobel Intent staff was unable to think of a reasonable analogy to describe how energetic that is.

Comcast’s growth slows as pressure from FiOS, U-Verse ratchets up

Comcast reported third-quarter results on Thursday morning, and despite meeting the average analyst expectations for earnings per share and beating the sales forecasts, the market saw fit to punish the stock price. Harshly. HangZhou Night Net

Management's short-term business outlook wasn't all flags and trumpets, as a weak economy and determined competition from satellite and telecom service providers bit into Comcast's subscriber growth. The company still grew its customer base, but the growth in revenue generating units (RGU) was 6 percent slower this time than it was a year ago. The company lost a total of 65,000 cable subscribers while adding 450,000 new broadband customers to bring its total number of high-speed Internet subscribers to 12.9 million. Unfortunately for the company, growth is slowing, as that 450,000 was 16 percent less than the same quarter last year.

It looks like the vaunted "triple-play" packaging has picked most of the low-hanging fruit already. One triple-play customer adds three RGUs—one each for voice, data, and video services. Last year, cable companies were fairly unchallenged in three-way offerings, but as Verizon and AT&T roll out high-speed networks capable of streaming a full range of video services into the home, that monopolistic advantage is getting lost.

Staring at the RGU data doesn't account for what Comcast calls "advanced services," though. High-definition services, DVRs, and on-demand programming doesn't affect the RGU count, but does improve the profit margin per customer. And advanced digital customers are much less likely to leave Comcast for greener pastures—just like triple-play subscribers.

The company now plans to push single-service and two-service packages a bit harder after seeing the success their competition has had with smaller package offerings. Comcast is also expanding the bandwidth available for high-def programming in a couple of ways. That's done mainly by converting two or three low-demand analog channels into one digital as opportunities arise. Looking further out, there are two trial markets up and running for switched digital video, which holds the promise to loosen the bandwidth crunch enormously.

The quarter itself was okay but nothing more. As for the loss in subscribers, the telecoms are clearly having an impact and we'll see how long the satellite providers can keep up their aggressive pricing. I think an 11 percent price drop is really excessive and would expect a correction as the shock and horror of this lukewarm report wears off.

Leopard backpedals again: No more iPhone note syncing (Updated)

Looks like Apple now believes that it has said a little too much with the new Leopard feature pages. Yesterday it backpedaled on letting us use an AirPort Disk with Time Machine, and now it appears as though all references to the iPhone have been removed from the "300+ new features" page. HangZhou Night Net

This includes something we talked about in a report last week: the 300+ features page had confirmed fueled assumptions that the iPhone would sync Notes with Leopard's Mail. It's gone now. Erased from existence, just like any trace of Time Machine and AirDisks. If you're still holding out hope, it's a good thing we saved a screenshot.

So what's the deal with this new feature edit? Has the previously-assumed Notes syncing feature been stricken off the iPhone's firmware to-do list? Or is Apple simply trying to stick to its MO in keeping most new iPhone features under wraps until they're ready to roll? Even more important: can we ask any more questions in a single paragraph? Honestly we aren't sure, but we will continue to keep our feelers out for developments.

Update

Gruber and commenters are right: Apple never confirmed that Leopard's Mail would sync notes with the iPhone Notes application. At best this is an assumption I and many others made due to the similarities in the name and UI of "Notes" between implementations in the new Mail and the iPhone. There are at least two other reasons I think many people hope this happens though.

The first is that many other smartphones sync their respective notes with some kind of desktop counterpart. Windows Mobile phones (and BlackBerry too?) sync notes to Outlook, and even third-party apps for the Mac will sync notes from Windows Mobile and BlackBerry to Entourage and Yojimbo. The fact that the iPhone doesn't (yet) in light of Mail gaining a Notes feature simply feels like a glaring omission. The second is that, put simply, being forced to drill in and out of folders (between e-mail and notes) in Mail on the iPhone is absolutely mind-numbing. I would go so far as to call it virtually useless, especially since you can't create a "note" on the iPhone and save it in the proper Notes folder for Leopard's Mail to pick it up, i.e., it isn't a two way system for now.

So even though nothing is confirmed, I'll be very surprised if Apple doesn't bring syncing to notes in Leopard's Mail and the iPhone's Notes application within the next one or two iPhone/Leopard software updates. This wouldn't need to be a Mac-only feature either, since the iPhone could sync notes with Outlook on Windows.

Four Leopard eve updates for your Macs: iMac, iLife, GarageBand, iDVD

With Leopard appearing on doorsteps and retail stores within the next 24 hours, Apple showed that it has had more than just 10.5 on its mind over the last few weeks. Apple has graced us with not one, not two, not even three, but four software updates from the mothership itself! HangZhou Night Net

First we have the iMac MXM update that folks were rumoring about not so long ago, which fixes Boot Camp issues on some rev. a 24" iMacs. Oddly enough, the update lists "products affected" as Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, Boot Camp, and iiMac [sic] (Late 2006 24-inch). There is no mention of whether the update fixes issues for OS X 10.4 Tiger. The update is a paltry 403KB and is available on Apple's website.

Update number two is "iLife Support 8.1.1" which offers the following improvements:

This update supports system software components shared by all iLife '08 applications, improves overall stability, addresses a number of other minor issues, and supports general compatibility issues. It is recommended for all users of iLife '08.

iLife Support 8.1.1 is a 6MB download available via Software Update or through Apple's download section here.

The final two updates are to iDVD (6.0.4) and GarageBand (3.0.5) which both improve stability and "support compatibility with OS X 10.5." The GarageBand update weighs in at 14.4MB while the iDVD counterpart sits at 6.5MB. Both iDVD areis available via Software Update (even if you are running 10.4) or on the web.

Go forth and update, and make sure you let us know how it goes in comments!

Storm worm going out with a bang, mounts DDoS attacks against researchers

When we last wrote about the Storm Worm in September, Heise Security had noted that the growing botnet had not yet been used for much, but could be a threat in the future. "[A]lthough the network has so far been primarily used to send spam, it could also be used for DDoS attacks on businesses or even countries," said Heise. Since then, Heise's prediction has come true; the worm now attacks those who publish new information on the inner workings of the worm. Researchers are allegedly "running scared" from the worm, which seemingly has a sentient ability to detect and attack whoever threatens it. HangZhou Night Net

IBM/ISS host-protection architect Josh Korman told Interop New York conference attendees this week that the worm has the ability to see who is probing its servers and launch a DDoS attack on that IP as retaliation. As a result, some researchers are afraid to publish any of their findings about the worm for fear of even harsher retaliation. "As you try to investigate [Storm], it knows, and it punishes," Korman said, as recounted by Network World. "It fights back."

Since its inception early this year, the Storm Worm has been spreading like wildfire. It first came as spam e-mail and claimed to provide information on storms going on in Europe, but soon began to morph into many different forms—presumably to avoid easy tracking. In almost every instance, the worm sent spam that contained a link, which would then infect the user's computer in order to send more spam. It appeared as if the worm's only purpose was to get as many computers as possible as part of its massive botnet, which (as we now know) is used to launch DDoS attacks.

There has been some level of debate over just how serious the Storm Worm's threat really is, and whether the botnet is as big as some researchers claim. Some had estimated that up to 15 million computers had become part of the Storm Worm's botnet, but others disagree, citing numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Detractors also point out that awareness of the worm allowed antivirus and malware-removal programs to target the worm in recent months, cutting down the number of infected computers even further. Indeed, Microsoft's anti-malware team added the Storm Worm to its Malicious Software Removal Tool on September 11. That update was pushed out to millions of Windows users and eliminated many infected nodes almost overnight.

Just last week, UC San Diego network security expert Brandon Enright told ToorCon conference-goers that his most recent data showed the Storm Worm sitting at a mere 20,000 computers, according to IDG. He did, however, note that he too was subject to a DDoS attack from the Storm Worm some time ago after having researched it just a little too much.

SEC filings reveal Movielink was a bottomless money pit for studios

When Blockbuster bought Movielink in August for $6.6 million, we commented that the seven-figure sale price had to be a disappointment for the five movie studios that had launched it, given that their expenditures were in the nine-figure range and they had originally wanted in the neighborhood of $50 million. Thanks to a recent 8-K filing from Blockbuster, we know know exactly how painful that $6.6 million sale price was. During Movielink's five-year run, the studios dropped just over $148 million on the download service. HangZhou Night Net

In fact, Movielink has been a big money loser throughout its entire existence. During the first half of 2007, the company lost $10.2 million on revenues of $1.9 million. That's a slight improvement over the same period in 2006, when losses were $11.6 million on revenues of $1.9 million. Looking back to 2005, the movie download service lost almost $31.2 million on revenues of $3.2 million for the whole year.

The company's financial woes come as little surprise given the stumbles made by MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Brothers—the studios that launched Movielink—since its launch. When the service first launched in 2002, we noted its limited selection (200 movies), insane restrictions (a 24-hour window to watch movies once started), and technological lock-in (Windows and Internet Explorer only).

Unfortunately, little changed over the next few years. The DRM restrictions became slightly less draconian, but for years, subscribers were required to watch their rentals on a PC due to the lack of a DVD-burning option. In 2006, Movielink announced a download-and-burn service, but even that has taken a long time to arrive.

In the meantime, Netflix managed to get its own streaming service up and running early this year, while Amazon made its Unbox download service available to TiVo owners. Those moves put more pressure on Blockbuster to make a play for some online video action, culminating in its purchase of Movielink.

Blockbuster has some big plans for the unpopular service. The video rental chain wants to use Movielink as a distribution platform for all kinds of content, including that targeted at mobile devices. But with Blockbuster's independent auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers saying that Movielink's track record raises "substantial doubt about the Company's ability to continue as a going concern," Blockbuster's plans for the service may never come to fruition, especially if it has to keep pumping the kind of money into the venture as the studios did.

British Lord: Virtual worlds should teach real-world values

At a UK conference yesterday on virtual worlds, David Puttnam (that's Lord Puttnam to you commoners) gave a keynote that laid out all the promise of virtual worlds in glowing terms, but then suggested that there might be a snake in the garden. HangZhou Night Net

Puttnam has had a long history in media, winning Oscars for his work with films like Chariots of Fire and serving as the head of Columbia Pictures for years. He now sits in the House of Lords, and his views on media carry significant weight.

So when Puttnam put an end to 16 minutes of praise for the promise of virtual worlds and turned to the challenges that such worlds face, people paid attention.

Addiction is one of the dangers. "Why wouldn't a personal paradise become addictive?" he asked the audience, but pointed out that he was old enough to remember similar worries over movies, video games, and the web. Though just about any human activity can give rise to addictive behavior, Puttnam doesn't see why virtual worlds would prove to be any more harmful than other forms of media, but he wants to see more research done in this area.

Regulatory issues also surround virtual worlds. Questions about whether virtual money should be taxed or whether virtual property is "real" property or whether avatars have any legal rights are currently being taken up by governments around the world. Some of these questions have no simple answers.

Identity and communications issues are also a concern in virtual worlds. Can people form trusting relationships with others in such places? How can (or how should) developers try to prevent antisocial behavior within the world?

ButPuttnam's most compelling question addressed the fact that many new virtual worlds, especially those targeted at children, are sponsored by brands or backed by companies with a product to sell. Puttnam wondered whether it was enough to shelter children from predators and keep their e-mail addresses private. With virtual worlds limited only by the human imagination, aren't there better uses for such creations than as tools to move widgets?

"Are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we can offer young people?" he asked. "Do we really want them to think of themselves as not that much more than consumers?" His alternative was using virtual worlds to "encourage [kids] to exercise those same values and skills we wish to see them exercise in the real world."

The whole of Puttnam's speech (and he has a wonderful speaking voice) is available from the conference website.

Video Professor sues critics, gets dogpiled by lawyers

The Video Professor, who you may have had the privilege of seeing inlate night infomercials, hasn't been thrilled with online criticism of his billing methods. In fact, he has sued infomercialscams.com, seeking to learn the identities of those who have "defamed" his company online. Now, a California law firm plans to turn the tables on the good doctor. HangZhou Night Net

Nassiri & Jung has launched vplitigation.com to respond to Video Professor's attacks on critics. The firm is trying to find some California residents who will be the targets of Video Professor's legal action, assuming that VP does get access to the identity information it wants.

The lawyers are "seeking out defendants in the Video Professor suit" and are interested in "possibly representing one or more of those defendants free of charge." But wait, there's more!

The firm is also looking into complaints about the company's billing practices, which that have dogged the company for years. Video Professor has been the subject of 615 Better Business Bureau complaints over the last 36 months, though it does appear that such complaints are quickly addressed.

Nassiri & Jung's web site notes that VP has already settled a 2004 class action suit in California relating to alleged "sales and marketing misconduct," and it sounds like the firm's lawyers might be prepping another, similar case.

Committed to customer satisfaction

John Scherer, the Video Professor himself, has taken to his blog recently to swat down allegations that he is attempting to trample on the right to anonymous speech in criticism. Here's how he describes what his company is doing:

"A number of people have gone to web sites and anonymously posted less-than-flattering statements about their experiences with Video Professor. I am simply trying to learn who these individuals are so that I can fix the problems they have had with my company. I am committed to satisfying my customers and I will go to great lengths to make them happy, as we always have. However, I can't help them if I don't know who they are."

That's certainly an unusual level of dedication to customer service; few companies file suit against customers they want to help. Ah, but Scherer's not done. Perhaps these customers that he so badly wants to help are not, in fact, customers at all.

"If the posters are truly unhappy customers, I want to find out what made them unhappy," he writes. "Maybe they aren't customers? If so, I am committed to stopping them from writing false and damaging statements about my company for their own financial gain."

Public Citizen, which is representing the man behind infomercialscams.com, said in a statement sent to Ars that it has learned "from former employees, and other sources, that Video Professor deliberately makes its exchanges with consumers confusing so that it can claim to have authorization for signing them up." The group has requested a raft of documents from Video Professor in support of this claim, so the VP lawsuit about defamation looks set to open up the whole can of worms aboutmarketing tactics that has dogged the company for so long.

Infomercialscams, though it has not agreed to turn over the information on its anonymous posters, has sent those posters a letter notifying them that they are targets of the VP lawsuit.

Future MacBooks could sport combo multitouch keyboard\/trackpad

When it comes to multi-touch, Apple really needs to quit being a tease with all the patents. A few weeks ago it was force sensitive touchpads that could be used on MacBooks, a tablet, or future iPhones. And for you patent application pleasure this week, Apple has filed a patent application for a combined keyboard and trackpad. HangZhou Night Net

By "combined keyboard and trackpad," I mean combined on the same multi-touch surface. Traditionally, this has been pretty hard to do, since providing ridges for help users find the "keys" means the surface isn't very useful as a trackpad. To provide tactile information about which key is which while also retaining the ability to be used as a keyboard, Apple has come up with four modifications to multi-touch surfaces.

First up, various patterns of small dots and/or bars could be printed over each row of keys, similar to the dots that are currently on the 'F' and 'J' keys. Secondly, the keyboard could have a frame of pins underneath it, which could be raised slightly above the surface in order to form the edges of keys. The frame would lower when the surface detected pointing motions, and would then re-raise itself afterwards.

In a related modification, parts of the frame could be raised or lowered underneath the surface in order to create depressions in the surface corresponding to the keys. Finally, keys filled with some type of material could be placed under the surface, and would then be able to be compressed at will. The dots and frames could be used along with the "filled" keys.

As we see more and more multi-touch patent applications from Apple, it's looking more and more likely that multi-touch is coming to the Mac. This type of combination keyboard/trackpad (perhaps with force sensitivity) would be a great way to cut down the size of a MacBook, since basically the entire lower half of the laptop could be combined with the keyboard. A keyboard like this could also be used to provide a full-size keyboard on a tablet, but I think a laptop usage is far more likely. Now if they would just hurry up and release it.