May 14, 2009

Wi-Fi for the skies: who's ahead and how it works

Posted: 12:59 PM ET

AirTran made a bunch of news yesterday for announcing that it will have Wi-Fi on all of its planes by summer.

The airline claims to be the first to do this. But saying which airline is ahead of another in terms of mile-high Internet offerings is a bit dizzying. Virgin tells the Dallas Morning News that it will actually be the first to have an entire fleet of planes equipped for Wi-Fi. Virgin's fleet is much smaller than AirTran's, though. And Delta, which has more planes than either, may actually have more planes fitted with wireless Internet than AirTran by summer, but it's not the whole Delta fleet. American also jumped into the mix, according to engadget.

So that race is messy and tough to call. What's clear is that Wi-Fi is becoming a mainstream thing - and airlines are using the technology as a way to one-up each other. This wasn't always the case. A few years ago, the common thinking was that customers weren't willing pay extra for the service, according to news reports.

On the cultural side of this change, the NYT blog says airplane Wi-Fi means there's one less place you can go to disconnect from the Web:

So the actual service is uneventful; the real news here is the cultural ramifications. Used to be that the plane ride was the last remaining chunk of incommunicado time, the last place on earth where no BlackBerry buzzes and no e-mail comes in.

But not anymore.

Let’s just look at the bright side: you still can’t make cellphone calls on planes. Yet.

My big question while reading all of this was technological: Why does Wi-Fi work in a plane when flight attendants still ask passengers to turn off their iPods?

Thank you, Slate, for having the answer:

It [wi-fi] operates on a totally different frequency. Cell phones transmit signals at roughly the same frequencies as aircraft communications—pilot radios and radar range from below 100 to 2,000 MHz, and many phones operate at 850 MHz or 1,900 MHz. Your cell could therefore—at least theoretically—interfere with navigation. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, signals at a higher frequency—anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 MHz—and thus won't get mixed up with the plane's transmissions.

In-flight Wi-Fi works like a moving Starbucks hot spot. The plane is rigged with three antennae—two on its belly and one on top—that receive signals from towers across the country. The frequency of those transmissions, 849 MHz, is within the range of airline communications. But they don't interfere with the plane's navigation, since 849 MHz is a dedicated frequency that was auctioned off and bought in 2006 by Aircell, which services American, Delta, and Virgin. (It's the same frequency once used by Airfone.)

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Filed under: Internet • Uncategorized

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April 30, 2009

The Pirate Google

Posted: 09:27 AM ET

The Pirate Bay defendants may have been unsuccessful when they tried to compare their site to Google before a judge, but that didn't stop one anonymous web designer from launching The Pirate Google, a Google search gateway which tries to make the point that digital files can be accessed through Google as well.

Ars Technica scored an interview with the mysterious coder and he (or she) explained the site's intention.

"The purpose of the site was simply to provoke discussion on issues such as piracy, net neutrality, and the power of the Internet as a disruptor of more traditional forms of media."

While The Pirate Google doesn't add any additional search functionality, it clearly demonstrates Google's ability to satisfy a searcher's thirst for torrents, both legal and otherwise.

A short mission statement on the fledgling site's homepage reads:

This site is not affiliated with Google, it simply makes use of Google Custom Search to restrict your searches to Torrent files. You can do this with any regular Google search by appending your query with filetype:torrent.

The intention of this site is to demonstrate the double standard that was exemplified in the recent Pirate Bay Trial. Sites such as Google offer much the same functionality as The Pirate Bay and other Bit Torrent sites but are not targeted by media conglomerates such as the IFPI as they have the political and legal clout to defend themselves unlike these small independent sites.

Does the Pirate Google further the Pirate Bay's cause or is it simply rehashing an already failed argument? Will Google be the next victim in the entertainment industry's fight against the Internet?

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Filed under: file sharing • Internet • piracy • Uncategorized

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April 24, 2009

Biofuel loses fight with California pollution regulators

Posted: 10:00 AM ET

The biofuel industry has lost its battle against California regulators over rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from various fuels, including corn-based ethanol.


The California Air Resources Board (CARB) late Thursday approved the controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which would force fuel producers to lower their “carbon intensity” of their products by 10 percent by 2020.

“They have made a huge mistake in demonizing first generation biofuels,” said Brooke Coleman of the New Fuels Alliance, a biofuel lobbying group. Coleman called the new rules a “biased regulation that drives investment away from all biofuels.”

Carbon intensity is what fueled the controversy. It’s a rating system meant to classify each fuel by how much greenhouse gases they produce for every unit of energy that they create.

CARB Chairman Mary Nichols touted the board’s decision, predicting that the new rules will reduce air pollution, create new jobs and “continue California’s leadership in the fight against global warming.”

Makers of ethanol said the rating system unfairly ties their U.S.-made corn-based fuel to mass deforestation – not in the United States – but in developing nations. Ethanol critics say the entire biofuel industry should bear global responsibility for clearing of trees to make farmland to grow crops that will be used to make the fuel.

The rules have taken on a pretty high profile since they were proposed. Several U.S. states are considering similar measures and even the European Union watching with interest.

In the months that the debate has been raging, people have been voicing a lot of strong opinions about this issue. So, what do you think about the ruling? Fire away!

In other news, CNN's iReport wants to know what you think of iPhone apps. How do you use them? What's your favorite? Tell us about your iPhone app experience!

Filed under: climate change • Energy • environment • Ethanol • Fuel • Uncategorized

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March 24, 2009

Woz survives again on 'Dancing With the Stars'

Posted: 09:49 PM ET

Did the geek vote do it?

Steve Wozniak’s 10 out of a possible 30 from the judges Monday on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” gave him one of the worst scores in the show’s six seasons, but that didn’t matter when the results were announced Tuesday night.

As host Tom Bergeron announced that Wozniak and his dance partner Katarina Smirnoff were the fourth couple safe from elimination, Smirnoff let out a shocked, shrill and piercing scream as the Apple, Inc. co-founder appeared to mouth the words, “Oh my God.”

You could almost hear the collective sigh and mass cheer in Geekville.

Standings on the show are determined by a combination of 50 percent of the judges’ scores and 50 percent of the viewers’ votes, and “Woznation” has been in full effect as his fans have taken to social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to drum up support.

So despite Wozniak’s dismal performance - which one judge declared to be the worst Samba he had ever seen - the philanthropist survives to dance another week. And in a nod to the burly Woz’s attempt at the break-dance move “the worm” during his Monday night performance, host Bergeron quipped, “The worm has turned!”

After the stunning announcement that Wozniak and his partner were safe from the dreaded “dance off” round, the visibly surprised Silicon Valley icon said he was “more shocked than anytime in my life, except maybe when I got served with divorce papers.”

The great Woz seemed to acknowledge his many followers.

“It’s amazing what we can do, and I’m going to keep trying to entertain,” he told host Samantha Harris.

–Lisa Respers France, Writer

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March 23, 2009

More from Tedx USC

Posted: 06:01 PM ET

Next up at Monday's TEDx conference was Jane Poynter, who discussed the "two years and 20 minutes" she spent living with eight other people in Biosphere 2, an enclosed ecological system in the Arizona desert.

Jane Poynter

Through living at the biosphere from 1991 to 1993, she grew to understand how much of a part of an isolated environment she was. The group faced difficulty when the biosphere began to run out of oxygen faster than the CO2 levels were increasing.

"In a sense it was terrifying. But at the same time, I knew I could walk out the door if it really got bad," she said. Instead of walking out, Poynter said the thrill of finding the source of the oxygen loss inspired her and the other crew members to remain in the biosphere. They eventually found the source of the problem—the concrete.

The biosphere had a savannah, private beach, rainforest, desert and dwelling for humans. The purpose, she said, was to “take life and jam it into a bubble and see if it survives.” (Sidenote for anyone who wants to live in a biosphere: Poynter said she ate so many sweet potatoes she turned orange).

Poynter drew chuckles from the audience when she talked about leaving the biosphere. "I immediately recoiled," she said of her reunion with family and friends, with their hairsprays and deodorants. "They stank." More importantly, after leaving the biosphere Poynter felt frustrated that she no longer knew where her food came from.

The results of the research she completed within the biosphere could help with an effort to grow plants in a self-contained environment on the moon or on Mars, she said.

An hour into the TEDx program, the speakers have already challenged us to think differently and test our ideas. One of the most compelling presentations was given by Donal T. Manahan, a professor of biology at USC, who proposed a "Blue Revolution." This sort of change involves tapping into our protein and food resources in the ocean.

His team of researchers are currently manipulating oysters to make them faster-growing. If organisms can grow faster, humans can eat them faster - potentially solving our food-shortage challenges. Likewise, Manahan says we should call "Planet Earth" by a new name - "Planet Ocean," because 99 percent of our atmosphere is aquatic due to the depth of the oceans. Perhaps we've been short-sighted to seek answers to our food shortages mainly on land?

- USC students Brooke-Sidney Gavins, Kate Mather and Larissa Puro

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February 20, 2009

Al Gore, stem cells, and the perfect kiss

Posted: 12:32 PM ET
Former Vice President Al Gore addresses the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Former Vice President Al Gore addresses the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

From former Vice President Al Gore's speech to a slew of fascinating presentations, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Illinois, was a whirlwind tour of innovative ideas. Here are some highlights of what we did:

-Saw Gore's presentation: Given that pop-culture conferences have concerts as their evening highlights, it makes sense that the AAAS would have America's climate-change rock star - who recently won a Grammy, no less - to get people on their feet. More than a thousand scientists, journalist, educators and students greeted Gore with a standing ovation as he took the stage.

In his speech, Gore identified a common thread between global warming, our national security and the world financial meltdown - our "absurd" dependence on carbon-based fuels. When you pull on the thread, he said, "then all three of these crises can begin to unravel.” The solution: shifting to an infrastructure based on fuels that are free, such as solar and wind power, and bolstering the science of clean and sustainable energy.

Gore seemed optimistic about Obama’s appointments to the Cabinet and the direction our country is taking to address the issue of climate change, which he called "a historic struggle." He emphasized the importance of us all working together as a species in order to prevent further threats to the entirety of human civilization.

Through a series of slides, which included the most recent scientific findings on climate change, Gore communicated his "inconvenient truth" to the audience while urging scientists to get more involved in their communities. He also called on scientists to get involved in politics, to speak out as “civic scientists” and to “find ways to communicate the truth." He concluded by saying, “Keep your day job, but start getting involved in this historic debate. We need you."

P.S. Gore uses an iPhone, too - he had to turn it off during the speech.

-Learned about stem cells: Bone marrow is one important source of adult stem cells, researchers say. And did you know that humans make 10 billion red blood cells every hour of every day? Dr. Will Li of the Angiogenesis Foundation talked about the potential of endothelial progenitor cells in the marrow for treatments of conditions such as diabetes.

-Got in touch with our emotions: People commonly feel better by writing their feelings down, and now scientists are beginning to understand why. Brain-imaging studies indicate that putting your feelings into words has the effect of regulating emotions, said Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles.

-Became kissing experts: Researchers presented their findings on the hormones involved in kissing, and the role of kissing in beginning (or ending) relationships. Full story

More from the conference: learn about a face transplant patient, think about foods of the future, and ponder Darwin's connection to Buddhism.

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December 11, 2008

Videogame wrestling is back!

Posted: 06:30 PM ET

You've trained hard for years. Many champions have fallen from your devastating finisher. Now new challengers and obstacles stand in your way.

Kofi Kingston talked to CNN about his role in the new video game, "WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009."

Welcome to "WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009," the newest installment in the pro-wrestling video game series. Released last month, the popular game features more than 60 playable superstars and many new features that have never been offered in a WWE video game.

Players can select between such wrestlers as John Cena, HHH, Chris Jericho, CM Punk and the Undertaker and follow them on a story-driven path to the final showdown at WrestleMania 24. If the roster of 60-plus superstars doesn't satisfy your needs, game developer THQ will make new wrestlers available via download by January 31.

THQ also put a heavy emphasis on tag-team wrestling for this edition of the game. Thanks to several new tag-team moves, you can now make a hot tag to your partner who will come in and clean house.

CNN spoke with wrestler Kofi Kingston, one half of the World Tag Team Champions (with CM Punk), regarding his first-ever character in the game.

“It was one of my career goals to be in a video game,” said Kingston, who is pleased with the amount of detail shown to his character and his mannerisms. “I personally did not do my own motion capture of my moves, but they did do a body and facial scan."

Kingston has long been a fan of wrestling video games, and "WrestleMania 2000" was his favorite. “I would use the Create-a-Wrestler feature to make myself, and fight through career mode with it," he said.

One of Kingston's favorite new modes is the Inferno Match, in which wrestlers can throw your opponent onto a fire. Don’t worry, though - they don’t burn for long. Crews come by with fire extinguishers.

"WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009" also boasts two new customization features. With Highlight Reel, a player can record a match, edit it and then share it online. With Create a Finisher, a player strings several animations and moves together to create the ultimate finisher.

Kingston does have one suggested addition for next year's game: The Championship Scramble match that occurred at this September's 'Unforgiven' pay-per-view event. The Scramble is a 20-minute match involving five superstars; whoever scores the last pinfall or submission at the end of the 20 minutes is the champion.

Kingston says he isn’t the only videogamer in the WWE. “There are a handful of us that are hardcore gamers. We used to bring an X-Box 360 on the road with us. The hotels wouldn’t have the proper connections so we would go and buy a small LCD TV to play on. We would be up playing video games instead of sleeping."

All that practice may come in handy for Kingston as he competes in THQ’s 7th Annual Smackdown vs. Raw WrestleMania Weekend tournament in March. Last year he took second place.

–Christopher Piatt, CNN

Filed under: Uncategorized • video games

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December 1, 2008

Are e-retailers ready for the holiday crush?

Posted: 04:01 PM ET

Today is Cyber Monday, the online shopping equivalent of last week's Black Friday and the unofficial kickoff of the holiday e-retailing season. The origin of the term was the now-dated notion that shoppers would return to their offices, where they had high-speed Internet access, after the Thanksgiving shopping weekend and make online purchases of items they missed buying in stores.

Despite the newly minted recession, early figures show that budget-minded shoppers, seeking free shipping and other discounts, are clicking on twice as many retail Web pages this season than last year. (Whether they are buying anything is another matter.)

But are e-retailers ready? Web sites for the Gap, J. Crew, Sephora and Williams-Sonoma all experienced Cyber Monday slowdowns or crashes, according to, an e-commerce news site. These episodes followed similar problems Black Friday on,, and other sites.

“Competitive pressure among the largest retailers is intense. This is triply true this year given recession-fueled bargain hunting,” said Evan Schuman,’s editor. “That will push higher-than-expected traffic, but it may also pressure many merchants to launch features before they're ready. Put it together and it’s an ideal recipe for crashes and other performance problems.”

Some retail sites may not be prepared to handle the expanded use of mobile browsers and widgets connecting them social-networking destinations such as Facebook, Schuman said.

Web site crashes are more than inconvenient - they can torpedo purchases and frustrate shoppers who entered their credit card numbers but aren't sure their purchases went through. So what to do?

Schuman suggests shoppers sign up for’s free news alert feed to learn ahead of time which sites are having problems. Or, heaven forbid, people can still buy gifts the old-fashioned way - by going in person to an actual store.

–Brandon Griggs,

Filed under: Internet • Uncategorized

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November 26, 2008

A dozen things to be thankful for from earth, space, and cyberspace

Posted: 12:59 PM ET

Okay, here's my sappy list of 12 "Thank Yous."   I'll do my best to cover all of the things we discuss on this blog:

1.  Muckrakers:  Thanks to a lot of colleagues who apply large brains and big hours to sorting out the truth from the BS in science and environmental news.  The Associated Press has two of the best, Seth Borenstein and Dina Cappiello.

2.  The Web:  God Bless the web.   Just like TV 50 years earlier, the Web makes it easier for us to be smarter.   Or stupider.

3.  Crazy Inventors:  Note to Dean Kamen:  The Segway probably didn't "change life as we know it."  But inventing a water purifier for developing-world villages just might.  And the annual "First" student robotics competition could help develop plenty more world-changers.

4.  Park Rangers:  Underpaid and underappreciated, they keep an eye on the places we go to take refuge from modern life.  

5.  My Favorite Refuge:  Arabia Mountain, a county park about 20 miles east of Atlanta:  Trails, forest, ponds, and massive, moonscape-like granite outcroppings.  It's also a cheap opportunity to publish a picture of my dog, hiking said Mountain in apparent violation of the leash law (below right).arabia-mtn

6.  Historians:  The hardy band of people who are trying their best to have us not repeat our mistakes.   A special shout-out for the season goes to Nathaniel Philbrick, whose book "Mayflower" busts through the Thanksgiving myths we've constructed and gives a real picture of 17th-century Colonial America as a pretty hairy place.

7.  Rocket Scientists:  It may not exactly be brain surgery, but thanks for letting us explore beyond the bounds of Earth.

8.  Bees:   Thanks for pollinating our plants and flowers.  Maybe we'll stop killing you off someday.

9.  Politicians:  Okay, it's a very limited  thanks.  But thanks at least for providing and funding parklands and trails.   Since this is a happy blog, I'll let my other thoughts on politicians go for now.  Maybe you could pay the Park Rangers something beyond a subsistence wage.

10.  Science Teachers:  The one that sticks out for me is the late Dr. George Marchesi, a former vaudeville magician who would work his magic act into physics lectures.   Thanks, Doc, it was the only way I could have ever gotten through physics, let alone actually remember some of it.

11.  Forecasters and Engineers:  There are a couple of hundred dead and missing from Hurricane Ike, the worst storm to hit the U.S. this season.  That's awful, but a century ago, a similar storm in a similar place killed over 6,000 in Galveston.   Thanks to those who send out the warning, those who build the buildings and seawalls, and the ones who work public safety jobs.  You're all lifesavers.

12.  Franko, our most frequent blog commenter.  Others of you have offered your own comments on Franko's haiku-like offerings, which you'll see in the "Comments" section of almost every one of the 300+ postings on the SciTechBlog since we opened for business in February.  According to our fellow readers, Franko's "brilliant," "inspired," "creative," "incoherent," and "heavily medicated."   I'll just leave it at "thanks, Franko."    And thanks to you all.

–Peter Dykstra     Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

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November 14, 2008

Shuttle ready to go tonight – if weather cooperates

Posted: 01:46 PM ET

With the weather the only question mark at this time, the seven-member crew of Space Shuttle Endeavour will suit up and close the hatch in the 5 p.m. ET hour today, hoping that a cold front with potential cloud cover and crosswinds will permit the launch at 7:55 ET this evening.shuttle-endeavour2

It's only the third nighttime launch since the Shuttle Columbia disaster five years ago.   NASA mission managers were reluctant to launch after dark, when it would be harder to spot the kind of launch damage that eventually doomed the seven-member Columbia crew.   A piece of insulating foam separated from Columbia's fuel tank, piercing the shuttle's leading wing edge and compromising its protection from the intense heat of re-entering the atmosphere.

CNN's Miles O'Brien will broadcast live from Kennedy Space Center for the launch; he'll be accompanied by Janice Voss, a veteran of five previous shuttle missions.  Should the launch be scrubbed for weather or technical reasons, there are other launch opportunities Saturday at 7:25 p.m., and Sunday at 7:02 p.m., though Saturday's weather looks dicey as well.

Endeavour will carry a module to add to the ISS, expanding sleeping quarters and adding toilet facilities with a goal of expanding the station's capacity to host up to six long-term occupants.

Peter Dykstra    Executive Producer   CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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