Widetronix goes nuclear to build a 25-year battery

-2A company called Widetronix has developed a 25-year battery. Reminiscent of Heinlein’s micro-fission reactors that could be worn on a belt, beta voltaic battery cells last 25 years or more, using semiconductors to turn high energy electrons known as beta particles thrown off by radioactive decay into a usable current.

The technology is 50 years old, but semiconductors back in the day required more radioactive substances to achieve the same (tiny) power output. This made them more dangerous and bulkier once the necessary shielding was in place. Lithium-ion cells simply out competed beta voltaics. But now, with improved semiconductor technologies, Widetronix is hoping to make converting beta particles into usable current the next big thing in medical implants and military and infrastructure sensors.

Ithaca, N.Y.-based Widetronix is focusing on the use of a hydrogen isotope called Tritium. It is relatively benign and sourced as a waste product from Canadian fission reactors that produce “heavy water” — water with two neutrons in the hydrogen atom (normally, hydrogen is a single proton and neutron). Tritium is super rare in the natural world and its other uses include painting watch hands and gun sights so that they glow in the dark.

In case you were already wondering, this technology won’t be powering your cell phone or your laptop any time soon. Those aren’t even on the list of potential uses; beta voltaics produce an extremely long-lived current but a very small one. So what is it good for?

They are extremely rugged — to the extent that they are being considered for the next generation of military sensor use. For these applications, they will have to be able to withstand temperatures from -65 to 150 degrees Celsius, high humidity, long-term salt buildup and high-frequency vibrations. In short, these batteries will have to survive conditions you’d find on a jet aircraft going from rough seas to 50,000 feet in the South Pacific, with the possibility of being subjected to burning jet fuel. They’ll also do just fine inside a human body, where they might power a pacemaker or other surgical implants.

Here’s what a possible application would look like:


The military will probably use the batteries in anti-tamper devices that need to do nothing at all for years at a time but may suddenly be called upon to provide self-destruct power. Beta-batteries may also be useful in wireless sensors for perimeter security, flight recorders and remote missile monitoring when higher-powered units are developed. Sensors placed in buildings, bridges and other large infrastructure projects could also alert engineers to potential failures before visible cracks appear. The beta voltaics seem like they would be useful anywhere you never want to change a battery.

One of the biggest hurdles to commercialization at this point is that the nuclear materials supply infrastructure in the U.S. has fallen apart since the end of the Cold War. The availability of nuclear materials has fallen off sharply. While many people aren’t heartbroken over this, it does make never-change battery development a bit more difficult: higher energy materials like nickel-63 must be bought from overseas and at high prices.

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Over A Year After Android Launch, ShopSavvy Finally Comes To The iPhone

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 11.43.28 AMShopSavvy was one of the best early Android applications. It launched in October of last year after winning one of the initial Android Developer Challenge top prizes (when it was still known as GoCart). But despite the success it has seen on Android, one question remained: When would it be available for the iPhone. Today, it finally is.

Developed by the guys at Big In Japan, ShopSavvy is an app that allows you to use your device as a portable barcode scanner. You point your phone’s camera at any barcode and it will read it, do a product look up, and give you information about the product, as well as where you can find it online or at nearby stores and for how much. Obviously, something like this is a window shopper’s dream.

And while you might think retailers may hate something like this, because it gives shoppers all of their competitors’ information, increasingly, they’ve been working with ShopSavvy to come up with ways to allow you to make buying in their stores even easier. And honestly, what are the retailers going to do anyway? All of this information is out there on the web, ShopSavvy just gives you easy access to it. Are they going to ban mobile phones in their stores? That’d be a great story for us if that were to happen.

IMG_0742So what took so long? Well, for a while, the iPhone lacked a key feature needed for the barcode scanner: A camera that had auto-focus. The iPhone 3GS gained that, and so the team should have been good to go. The plan was originally to release the app this summer, but a internal mix up involving a team member who had since departed registering the app to his iTunes account caused a delay (more on that here). After some back and forth with Apple, Big In Japan was finally able to get that resolved.

While it’s great to see this product on the iPhone, it is a little buggy right now. The main issue is that it’s hard to scan the barcodes properly. Big In Japan says a fix for that is coming shortly, based on what they’ve learned from beta testers, but keep that in mind when using the app for now.

My own tests confirm that it is a little hard to scan, but it seems to work most of the time. For example, I just scanned the protein bar I’m eating, and ShopSavvy pulled it up right away and gave me a pricing rundown. Nifty.

ShopSavvy is available for free in the App Store. Find it here. Also read about Big In Japan’s other big plan for the iPhone (100 apps in a year) here.

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New Tech Spec Licensing Agreement Could Open Floodgates of Web Innovation

After 18 months of negotiation, the Open Web Foundation, a group made up of 106 employees of Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, some small startups and their lawyers, today released a legal document template for licensing open web technology specifications. The result could be greatly accelerated time-to-market for new technologies developed on top of these specifications and more awesomeness, sooner, for web consumers.

Standardized legal documents for technical specifications may not seem like the sexiest thing in the the world - but this is actually pretty exciting news. Developments like this could be a key part of the foundation that online service providers need to move forward on a long list of great ideas for ways to serve their users.


What does this mean? It means that other companies will be able to use technologies like Media RSS, OAuth, Salmon, Web Slices and more without fear that unclear licensing agreements will lead to legal problems later. It also means that developers creating innovative new tech specifications to push and pull user data from one site to another can launch them using a turn-key license developed by some of the top legal teams in the business.

People come up with crazy ideas for making the web work better all the time. This agreement aims to provide an easy way to make it safe to implement those ideas. The companies participating have spent large amounts of time and money negotiating the agreement, now anyone can take advantage of the fruits of that labor at no cost.

Existing specifications that will be placed under the Open Web Foundation Agreement, per the announcement today, include:

  • Syndicated media delivery spec Media RSS (currently controlled by Yahoo!)

  • Secure 3rd party authentication spec OAuth Core and Wrap (from Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft)

  • Real-time feed protocol PubSubHubbub (Google)

  • Comment aggregation protocol Salmon (Google)

  • Web Slice Format (Microsoft)

  • And several others.


DocuSign Raises $2 Million For E-Signature Software

DocuSign, an e-signature service, has raised $2 million from Second Century Ventures. The venture firm is the investment fund of the National Association of Realtors. This brings DocuSign’s total funding up to $30 million.

DocuSign, which was founded in 2003, allows companies to get legally binding signatures quickly over the internet instead of over the fax or mail. DocuSign certifies digital signatures over the web, acting as a intermediary who holds the documents and verifies the identity of the signature. The digital signature business was really opened up during the turn of the century with that passing of the UETA and ESIGN acts, which clarified the legal grounds for electronic signatures nationwide. To date, more than 25 million signature events have been executed using DocuSign and service currently has 2.5 million users.

DocuSign is seeing increased traction of its technology in the commercial and residential real estate spaces. Rather than driving across town to get a signature or forcing their clients to find a fax machine, real estate professionals use DocuSign to execute agreements with buyers and sellers electronically, eliminating the old process of printing, faxing, and waiting for the return fax. In an age where deals are increasingly made remotely, it makes sense for e-signature technology to be adapted in the real estate world. The new funding will be used for further development of DocuSign’s technology for the real estate space. Competitors include EchoSign, and VeriSign.

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MSE Update Utility Keeps Security Up to Date Without Windows Update [Downloads]

Windows only: If you're a fan of Microsoft Security Essentials antivirus (and many of you are) but not a fan of the pesky Windows Update, MSE Update Utility will keep your virus definitions up to date without Windows' unwanted help.

A lot of situations might call for turning off Windows Update—larger networks like a company or university sometimes do their own updates, but more likely you just plain don't like its frequent reminders (which we understand). In the past, if you were in one of these situations, you had to update MSE's virus definitions manually. Thankfully, Nakodari at AddictiveTips created a small update utility for MSE that allows you to automatically keep your virus protection up to date, even when the rest of your system isn't.

From the app's main window, you can choose the update interval (daily, weekly, monthly or at startup), and you can choose whether the program runs on startup. It will automatically update your virus definitions in the background and let you know when it's done.

MSE Update Utility is a free download, Windows only.

Nissan’s wireless EV charging could leave Coulomb, Better Place in the dust

-1Electric vehicles have come a long way in the last two years. Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive have proven that EVs can be fast and decently ranged, even sexy. Nissan is promising to make them fairly cheap. General Motors is working on something any flag waving urban American would be proud to drive. But there’s still one hitch: battery technology — we don’t have anything better than the lithium-ion cells currently in use, and only questionable strategies for recharging them.

If you were driving an EV or plug-in hybrid today, where would you fuel-up? How about in two to five years?

One charging station provider, Coulomb Technologies, has ChargePoint stations in the Bay Area, Sacramento, Iowa and Houston (starting today in partnership with Reliant Energy!), but you can’t drive from San Francisco to Iowa on a single charge. They essentially limit cars to city driving.

Even if this changes and Coulomb’s stations become as ubiquitous as Exxon’s, it still takes a while to top off a car battery — not exactly convenient on a busy day. Coulomb’s charging products include a 120-volt (wall plug) and a 240-volt (dryer plug) variant. You still have to physically plug your car in and wait. With the 120-volt system, you wait 8 hours. With 240 volts at 30 amps, you wait 3 to 4 hours. This is assuming you have a Chevy Volt-sized battery, which has a 40 mile range. And all of these times only give you an 80 percent charge.

Better Place has their own system for recharging, again with 4 to 8 hours being the typical time frame to fully charge a 220-volt unit. Still requires wires, still takes a while – still not practical for all users, though some will do just fine with a 100-mile range and a Better Place charging system.

Startup R2EV’s Fuel 2.0 system sounds cool. It uses modular and scalable battery blocks that you can put together and change out manually, exchanging live ones for deads on the charge rack. Their web site makes mention of exchange stations that trade batteries out for you while you wait. Full tank in ten minutes or less, the company promises.

But there are problems with that model — also used by Better Place — too. First, there is the Jiffy Lube syndrome – the frequency with which combustion engines blow up due to service station error is alarming. An improperly charged, damaged or connected battery is a dangerous thing for the safety of the hardware and the people driving it.

Quality is also going to suffer as batteries circulate forever, nobody wanting to eat the cost of getting them replaced – even if it falls exclusively on the shop to do so. It won’t happen until the last minute. You won’t be getting a peak condition battery, and you won’t be getting your car’s rated range. Ever seen the safety practices of an average mechanic’s shop? How about a 4×4 post keeping an auto lift supported? The idea of an in-and-out battery swap is scary.

Nissan may be onto something with its wireless recharging system debuting with their EV, the Leaf. In it’s current iteration, the technology is limited to that car model. But imagine this:

You live in rural Utah, where a trip to the grocery store is 60 miles one way. Then you have to drive further away from home, 45 miles, to Richfield to pick up school clothes for the kids. Your car has a 100-mile range when its brand new, probably 85 miles these days – so you aren’t even getting to Richfield on a single charge.

Fortunately, the Food Town in Loa got its subsidy money and a brand new weatherproof 240-volt, 80-amp wireless charging pad. Six of them, actually, in the parking lot. So you zip on up through Capital Reef National park, cruise through Torrey and Bicknell and Lyman on up to the grocery store. It’s a sunny weekend day, so power is cheap because of Richfield’s regional solar plant.

You swipe your pass key over the charging terminal and accept the current power rates, enter Spot Number 005 and hit the green button. By the time you get out from the week’s grocery shopping, you have a fully charged car and you still haven’t touched a cable. You make it to Richfield and do the same thing at the Wal-Mart. From there, back to Food Town for the perishables, and then home. You’ve spent almost zero time thinking about your car’s battery. Less time, in fact, than you’d normally think about your old Toyota’s gas tank.

The point is that wireless charging could let you top off the battery without taking up valuable parking space with wires and clunky infrastructure. It also avoids the battery swap, which may make sense for fleet vehicles, but not for the average consumer. Wireless charging in everyday places: coming soon to a parking lot near you?

greenbeat_logo7213255VentureBeat is hosting GreenBeat, the seminal executive conference on the Smart Grid, on Nov. 18-19, featuring keynotes from Nobel Prize winner Al Gore and Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr. Register for your ticket today at GreenBeat2009.com.

Online Subscription Billing Is A Pain. Recurly Wants To Alleviate It.

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 12.10.36 AMMost startups have about a billion things to worry about. For many of them, this includes execution of their business model. With online ad networks depressed, increasingly, a number of those companies are starting to explore subscription-based models. But there are a dozen reasons why that can be a pain. Enter Recurly.

Recurly, which is a startup itself, is entering private beta today. The core idea behind the service is simple: To make it simple for startups to be able to offer subscription-based services as an option. They provide an easy-to-use system with a nice user interace and good analytics that lays on top of the dealings that must be done between a payment gateway (such as Authorize.NET) and the startup.

There are a number of other services that offer such functionality but Recurly believes it can differentiate itself in two key ways. First, they do not get paid until you get paid. There are no hidden or monthly fees here. Recurly takes a percentage of each transaction. These total anywhere from 1 to 3 percent depending on volume. But it also doesn’t take the money each time you make a sale, instead it collects the money at the end of each month when the sales are done.

Recurly’s other big selling point is the ability to offer customers a way to easily upgrade or downgrade service plans. What this means is that if an end user decides they want to switch to a lower-tier pricing structure for a service, Recurly can handle that seamlessly. While we may not think that is that big of a deal, it’s a huge headache on the backend for most companies to deal with, according to co-founder Isaac Hall.

And “seamless’ is probably the key word for everything Recurly is trying to do. If you’re a very young startup and don’t even want to deal with APIs, you can come to the site and set up a payment form widget in a few steps, for example. Or maybe your site requires a bit more customization. There are APIs available to you that still hook into Recurly’s system and give you the same kind of data and analytics that you would get with the simple widget.

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 12.12.31 AM

So who is the main target? Primarily SaaS clients, co-founder Tim Van Loan tells us. He thinks this is a particularly exciting time for them, and really all sites that want to use a “freemium” business model. And realizing the so-called “app economy” is currently exploding, he sees that area in Recurly’s future plans as well.

Of course, as I said, there is plenty of competition. One of the big players is Zuora. But for many young startups, they’re offering is too complex. And more importantly, it’s also expensive. A closer competitor may be CheddarGetter, a startup that launched out of the incubator SproutBox back in August. There are a number of similarities between the two, but the key difference is that while CheddarGetter charges a flat-fee (starting at $39 a month, but goes up as you grow), Recurly opts to use the transaction fees (which also rise as you grow). It’s simply two different ways of doing things. Recurly also says it is more enterprise-focused.

Another thing to watch for is what PayPal is now doing with its own APIs. But again, Hall is sure that the easy upgrade/downgrade type options are something that Recurly can offer that others won’t be able to easily match. Plus, he notes that they work with PayPal as one of the payment gateway options.

Up until now, Recurly has been in a very small closed alpha test with a handful of customers. Today marks the launch of their slightly more open, but still closed beta.

Recurly is also announcing that David Samuel, the co-founder of Freestyle Capital, and founder of Spinner and Crackle, will be joining their board of advisors.

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 12.13.23 AM

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Keep Frequent Business Travel Stress in Perspective [Travel]

If you travel a lot for business, you know it's often not as glamorous as it sounds. Check out one frequent flier's tips on keeping business travel burn-out in check.

Photo by katsniffen.

Entrepreneur and career blogger Penelope Trunk racks up more business travel miles in a year than some people accumulate in a lifetime. She says perspective is vital to warding off burnout and a disrupted personal life.

Think of balance in terms of weeks, not days. I know I want to spend time with the Farmer, spend time with the kids, be around for dinner invitations, and tooth-fairy moments. I used to worry about this every day. If I didn't have breakfast with the kids, then I had to have dinner. Now I think in terms of weeks. If I was gone all week, I take off a day from work to have extra time for my personal life. If you are good at your job, and you travel a lot, no one counts how many days you take off.

Be sure to take a look at the rest of Trunk's tips, including why you should give up McDonald's on your travels entirely. Have your own best methods for coping with lots of travel? Tell us about it in the comments.

Betaworks, Cuban Invest in Real-Time Transformer Superfeedr

superfeedrlogo.jpgSuperfeedr, a service that transforms a wide variety of feeds into normalized XMPP or Pubsubhubbub data, announced a seed round of funding from some very high-profile backers this morning. Betaworks, backers of Twitter, Bit.ly, Tweetdeck, Twitterfeed, Tumblr and more, and Mark Cuban, have invested in Superfeedr's parent company Notifixious.

Superfeedr offers services to both publishers and subscribers, current marque users include SixApart, Adobe, Twitterfeed and Posterous. Notifixious founder Julien Genestoux first met Betaworks CEO John Borthwick at our event last month, the ReadWrite Real-Time Web Summit.


Superfeedr is one of a number of real-time as a service providers, related if different competitors include Notify.me and Kaazing.

These service offer developers plug-and-play real-time publishing and subscription, allowing them to instead focus on building the features they can offer the most unique value from. "We do something stupid so you don't have to," is a slogan used on the Superfeedr website.

If there's a downside to using the service it's reliance on a third party for critical syndication functionality. Superfeedr experienced an outage for several hours earlier this month. Genestoux blogged about the problem and eventual solution on the company blog.

Genestoux says he plans to build out hardware and personnel with the backing. These relationships will also facilitate important introductions to potential customers and offer big validation of the Superfeedr service.

Superfeedr is one of ten companies profiled in the case studies section of the forthcoming ReadWriteWeb research report on the state of the real-time web market, which will be published later this month and can be pre-ordered here.


Has ERRA just launched the future of advanced batteries?

backfuture_lIn energy storage, fantastic claims of game-changing technologies launch, peak and fall rapidly – only rarely does an actual product result. In a press release, ERRA Incorporated of San Antonio, Tex., announced their acquisition of a set of rights and patents for a “breakthrough battery technology” to be marketed as the YESS (Your Energy Storage Solution) Battery from ERRA, Inc. The press release made no mention of the battery’s chemistry, only that it was “Simply the most cost effective energy storage battery module on the planet!” If nothing else, we were curious.

With a little digging, we discovered that ERRA had bought the rights to some important innovations in nickel-hydrogen (Ni-H2) batteries. Ni-H2 is, as the press release indicated, is the same battery tech that has been powering satellites for the last 30 years or so. Not remembering when Sputnik was launched, it can only say that the batteries have been working continuously. NI-H2 can withstand upwards of 20,000 charge-discharge cycles, can be 100 percent discharged, recharged and then used as if nothing happened and still have a zero self discharge rate. The reason they haven’t been used in cars before? Energy per kilogram, the Hindenburg and weight.

Now, ERRA claims to have resolved the last two issues. The energy density per kilogram is still hugely important though, so we’ll talk about that first. Now, a traditional NiH2 cell has anywhere from half to three quarters the energy density of lithium ion cells. Put in a Chevrolet Volt, for instance, this means that instead of 40 miles on Li-Ion, we are getting 20 or 30 miles on NiH2. Even the most urbane of commuters isn’t going to dig it – let alone risk explosions. It just doesn’t have the energy density to get you far enough to sell the things. Two ways to fix this: different chemistry (lithium ion) or reduced weight.

Tradtional NiH2 cells require a substantial pressure vessel to contain the hydrogen gas. The things were great for use in space where a satellite would sit in geosynchronous orbit for a few decades and then become a shooting star, but in automotive applications, the power to weight ratio just wasn’t there due to the cumbersome hydrogen storage vessel.

Of course, there was the risk of Hindenburg-like explosions on the street as well. According to ERRA’s CEO James Hogarth, the hydrogen has been removed from the battery itself in the company’s technology and stored in a solid state. This meant the pressure vessel could be lightened considerably — and that being stored with a negative pressure, any hydrogen leaks would be very slow and burn like a candle instead of a bomb. One hopes that this is accurate. Assuming the safety aspect is taken care of and that effective weight reductions have taken place, what does this mean?

Well, for one, a 40-year old chemistry might have just gotten a new lease on life. If the batteries are substantially lighter as ERRA tells us, then the power to weight ratio is going to be improved dramatically. Coupled with other improvements, ERRA doesn’t want released publicly, we expect substantial improvements in their kilowatt-hour-per-kilogram figures. Without solid numbers from ERRA’s engineering department, we can only guess.

Still, any car battery that can withstand 20,000 charge cyles, be used 100 percent and not damaged, crashed into a brick wall and rendered inert without any real danger, topped off and remain 100 percent three years later is going to be a winner. If ERRA has refined NiH2 to be competitive with Li-Ion’s charge density, while maintaining the robustness of the chemistry and building some safety into it, expect to be hearing about them. A lot.

ERRA has found a manufacturer and expects to be ready for production in six to nine months. It has identified two production lines requiring only a few modifications to start churning out NiH2 cells. They expect the cells to be used everywhere from AAA applications to grid storage, though this may require additional manufacturing facilities.

greenbeat_logo7213255VentureBeat is hosting GreenBeat, the seminal executive conference on the Smart Grid, on Nov. 18-19, featuring keynotes from Nobel Prize winner Al Gore and Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr. Register for your ticket today at GreenBeat2009.com.

DiTech’s PhoneTag Now Works Behind Your Company’s Firewall

Today DiTech networks is announcing that it’s releasing a fully automated version of its PhoneTag voicemail-to-text technology that can operate behind a company firewall, making the service available to the many businesses and organizations where privacy and security are important. The service will also be readily available to enterprise customers, as it is fully functional with Mutare’s popular Enabled VoiceMail servers (though businesses will have to pay to active it). The service will also work on older PBX’s.

James Siminoff, DiTech Chief Strategy Officer (and former SimulScribe CEO), says that this is the first fully automated voicemail-to-text service that can operate behind the firewall. Most services, he says, rely on some degree of human transcription for accuracy, which makes them unsuitable for organizations that deal with sensitive information (a competitor called Spinvox has been in hot water for using humans to transcribe text that was supposed to be automated, leading to an uproar over privacy issues). PhoneTag’s fully automated solution is capable of around 85% accuracy, which makes it a viable solution for businesses that don’t want their voice messages routed outside of the company. PhoneTag also offers a human-powered service for users who aren’t handling sensitive information, which can get up to 97% accuracy.

The PhoneTag technology comes from a startup called SimulScribe, which recently signed an exclusive partnership with DiTech worth as much as $17 million.

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Reflective Roadway Tape Lights Your Bike Day or Night for Cheap [DIY]

Bike lover Scott was in need of some safety modifications for his bike. Rather than go with the regular old reflectors, Scott enlisted the help of his local traffic office for a free and seriously reflective alternative.

Bike modification weblog Bike Hacks showcased Scott's ingenious idea of heading to his local traffic office for the leftover scraps from the cutting of road signs. What is normally thrown away looks to be a great safety upgrade to his set of wheels.

Read about the free reflective street sign material and went down to my local traffic office (which happens to be about a quarter mile from my house – perfect). The lady working at the front was very helpful and even went to the back right then and there. She emerged with a large box of white and yellow scraps that were mostly large rectangles, easily over 10sq ft in total! Just started to apply it to my bike which just so happens to be a 7 month old single speed Globe that I couldn't be more pleased with.

Although we're unsure if the traffic department nearest you is as willing to hand out their leftovers, we might suggest telling them they're for the modification of your bike so you don't look like a vandal ready to graffiti up the town. If stickers aren't your idea of a good time, try making your own mini bike light to make yourself visible to others you share the road with.

AdMob launches interactive video ads on the iPhone

admob-logoAdMob, the mobile ad network that Google plans to acquire for $750 million, announced that it’s supporting a new kind of iPhone ad — interactive video.

This is the first interactive video ad unit for iPhones, AdMob says. Mainly, the new feature allows application developers to run a video ad while the application is loading, the way video sometimes plays when before you load a website. (You’re a big fan of those ads, right?) Advertisers can also introduce interactions into the video, such as the ability to tap a button to see more video or jump to a website. You can view a sample ad here.

Of course, slow or erratic network connections can be a problem with loading video on mobile phones, but AdMob says it will adjust video quality depending on network speed.

AdMob’s network reaches more than 20 million iPhones and iPod Touches, the company says. The interactive video ads are starting to run this week.

PG&E lawsuit spreads down Smart Grid supply chain

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 9.55.54 AMLast week, we reported on the lawsuit being filed against Pacific Gas & Electric for price hikes seemingly caused by installation of smart meters in the Bakersfield area of California. Now the plaintiff’s attorneys say that PG&E’s suppliers should also be sued — a who’s who of Smart Grid companies including General Electric, meter maker Landis+Gyr and communications provider Silver Spring Networks.

The original plaintiff, Bakersfield resident Pete Flores, filed the suit after his electric bill tripled fro $200 to $600 a month — right after having a new smart meter installed in his home. Objecting that PG&E described the meter as a money-saving device, he decided to sue for fraudulent advertising, negligence and unjust enrichment.

Wrapping up Landis+Gyr in a lawsuit — considering it’s one of the biggest and most respected meter makers in the country, up there with Itron, and Silver Spring Networks, tapped as the most likely IPO in the Smart Grid space — is a pretty big deal. Silver Spring has raised upwards of $167 million from the likes of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Foundation Capital — it’s even advised by Al Gore. Landis+Gyr has brought in more than $100 million in capital and is growing globally.

While PG&E has been adamant that the smart meters, capable of beaming data wirelessly back to the utility, are not the cause of Flores’ increased electrical bills, it has yet to produce a practical reason for the problem. The utility has invited a third-party representative from the California Public Utilities Commission to ensure the accuracy of its metering technology, but this has yet to take place.

Silver Spring has remained silent on the suit so far, while Landis+Gyr has simply refuted that there is anything wrong with the meters it has delivered to PG&E.

If Flores and his attorneys successfully sue the entire Smart Grid supply chain in this situation, it could be bad news for similar metering initiatives elsewhere. The Department of Energy just doled out $3.4 billion to utilities looking to smarten up their equipment, but this money could stall, and customers could push back if Flores wins his case or if word of inaccurate or price-boosting meters gets out.

Here’s a copy of Flores’ original complaint:

Klein’s Complaint

greenbeat_logo7213255VentureBeat is hosting GreenBeat, the seminal executive conference on the Smart Grid, on Nov. 18-19, featuring keynotes from Nobel Prize winner Al Gore and Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr. Register for your ticket today at GreenBeat2009.com.

Google Scholar Gets Smarter: Now Features Legal Opinions

google_scholar_logo_nov09.pngGoogle just announced that it now features legal opinions in Google Scholar. Starting today, Google Scholar will feature the full text of legal opinions from US federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts. Through this, users can now easily find the text of Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education, for example. Google Scholar also lists other legal opinions and journals that cited these opinions. In addition, users can also do standard keyword searches to find legal documents.


Users can easily restrict searches to opinions from federal courts or courts in certain states. In addition to finding the case and legal opinion, Google Scholar also displays related documents in a sidebar, as well as a list of cases where a certain opinion was cited. Google's Anurag Acharya also notes that a lot of these opinions are surprisingly readable.


As Google points out in the announcement, finding these legal opinions has typically been difficult. Now, the company makes it very easy to find any legal opinion about Napster, for example. Google notes that it hopes that access to this information will allow regular citizens to "learn more about the laws that govern us all."

It's interesting to see that Google continues to add more and more public data to its repositories. Just last week, Google added data from the World Bank to its search results. Earlier this year, Google also started to include data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau's Population Division. Google didn't go as far as integrating these legal opinions on its search results page yet - though for searches for Roe v. Wade or Miranda v. Arizona, these results could really enhance the current search results.


The Post Transaction Marketing Wall Of Shame: Hundreds Of Well Known Ecommerce Sites Rip Off Customers

Later today Senator Rockefeller is holding a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation full committee hearing on Aggressive Sales Tactics on the Internet and their Impact on American Consumers. He released a report on his findings in advance of the hearing.

The documents contain a lot of previously unavailable information on the size of the market, and where the money is flowing.

Background: hundreds of well known ecommerce companies add post transaction marketing offers to consumers immediately after something is purchased on the site. Consumers are usually offered cash back if they just hit a confirmation button. But when they do, their credit card information is automatically passed through to a marketing company that signs them up for a credit card subscription to a package of useless services. The “rebate” is rarely paid.

Intelius is one company that is using these scams to go public. But scores of even more well known ecommerce companies use these scams as well, including: 1800flowers, Buy.com, Classmates.com, Columbia House, Expedia, Hotels.com, Fandango, FTD, Hotwire, MovieTickets.com, Orbitz, Priceline, Shutterfly, Travelocity, US Airways and Vista Print. Each of these companies has received over $10 million in PTM revenue, according to the report. Hundreds more received less.

Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty are the three largest companies partnering on these scams. The report states that these three companies have earned over $1.4 billion in revenue from 35 million transactions. 4 million people are currently enrolled in the plans.

450 or more ecommerce sites have added the scams, says the report, and 88 of them have earned at least $1 million. Sites can earn CPMs from the ads of up to $2,600, and the conversion rate is up to 4.5%

We’ve written that these PTM scams are kissing cousins to the Scamville social gaming scams we reported on earlier this month. As with Scamville, companies that don’t engage in these tactics are at a disadvantage. They earn less revenue, meaning they can’t be as aggressive on core pricing and on advertising. So without regulation, sites that don’t engage in scamming users are forced out into the practice, or out of business.

The report and supporting documents are embedded below.






, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

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Voddler, The Spotify-for-movies, Secures Mystery Funding

Movie-streaming service Voddler (the so-called ”Spotify for movies”) has received about 3.4 million Euros (35 million SEK) in funding from a group of private investors. The money will supposedly go into developing the service.

Voddler has chosen to not to give out any info about the investors or how large their share in the company will be. The company has about 50 share holders to date. One of them is Deseven Capital where Voddler’s CEO Marcus Bäcklund is a partner.

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Build a Cheap But Powerful Boxee Media Center [Media Center]

Adam thinks XBMC is the best media center around, but I roll with Boxee for its awesome content apps. Here's how I turned a relatively cheap, yet surprisingly powerful home theater PC into a DIY Boxee Box for my HDTV.

Why go with Boxee? A few reasons, really: it's free to download, it's got a ton of great applications and add-ins, and it was, like XMBC, built with a big-screen interface in mind. When I was done installing it on top of a basic Ubuntu desktop, I had a system that could easily handle 720p and even (with some very easy overclocking) 1080p video files, run Hulu streams in full screen with very little glitching, and let me show off Flickr streams, Facebook photos, Pandora or Last.fm music, to name just a few of many content streams.

Plus, with Ubuntu installed and set up, you can easily run any other Linux app on your TV—like Hulu Desktop, a huge-screen Firefox, or whatever you can imagine.

You could, of course, wait for the first official Boxee Box to be unveiled in December, then shipped sometime later. This way, however, you get a seriously powerful HTPC that can run most any media center, and tears up HD video streams while doing so.

Many thanks to the fine posters at the Boxee and Ubuntu forums, where I found needed help and inspiration. This ASRock how-to, and wake-on-LAN tutorial, in particular, were lifesavers.

What You'll Need

  • ASRock Ion 330: Like Adam's pick of the Acer Aspire Revo, my HTPC comes with an NVIDIA ION graphics chip that can handle meaty HD video and export through an HDMI cable. My similarly sleek and (mostly) quiet-running system costs $150 more ($160 if you absolutely must have it in white), but it's beefier: 2GB of RAM (up to 4GB supported), a dual-core Intel Atom 330 CPU that runs at 1.6 GHz out of the box, but can be overclocked to 2.2 GHz from a simple BIOS switch, a 320 GB hard drive, and a DVD-RW drive. Unlike his Revo, my ASRock doesn't come with USB peripherals or Windows XP, but, then again, we'll only need a USB keyboard and mouse for a little bit with this project.
  • USB keyboard and mouse: For the Ubuntu installation process and BIOS tweaks. After everything's set up, you'll be able to control everything via remote screen access, SSH terminal, or your infrared remote.
  • Boxee for Ubuntu Linux: We'll detail how to install it in our just-set-up ASRock in a bit.
  • Ubuntu 9.04: You'll want the "PC Desktop CD" ISO image, which you can download directly or through BitTorrent. Boxee will soon update to support Ubuntu 9.10, the most current release, but for what you're using it for, you'll hardly notice.
  • A thumb drive or blank CD: The USB drive should be at least 1GB in size, and formatted to FAT 32 for easy compatibility.
  • An IR receiver and Windows Media Center remote: Just like Adam, I'd go with this cheap receiver+remote solution, though anything that claims Media Center compatibility will be much easier to set up with Linux and Boxee.

Setting up Ubuntu is something I've done many times, and it's just as easy on this system. Here's the quick walk-through:

Install Ubuntu From a Thumb Drive or CD

Ubuntu, like XBMC, can run entirely off a thumb drive, or be installed to a hard drive. We're going for the latter option here.

1. Create your Ubuntu installation media:
The fastest and quickest installation is to put the Ubuntu 9.04 desktop ISO you downloaded on a thumb drive using the free Unetbootin tool on a Windows or Linux system.

You can also have Unetbootin automatically download Ubuntu 9.04 for you, or burn the ISO to a CD or DVD, but thumb drive installations are much faster and don't require wasting a disc.

2. Set up your ASRock
Take the unit out of its box, and find a location for it where it can breathe and exhaust a little—not flush against a corner, in other words. Plug in an ethernet cable straight from your router (or Wi-Fi bridge), and connect it to your TV via an HDMI cable. You'll also need to plug in a USB keyboard and mouse to get through the initial setup. Make sure all the connects are snug and not stretched, then plug in your USB thumb drive, or power it on and insert your CD/DVD.

3. Install Ubuntu
Make sure your TV is switched to the HDMI source your ASRock box is plugged into. After you power on the ASRock, hit F11 immediately on your keyboard to open the boot options, then select your USB drive.

You'll be launched into Ubuntu's setup screen. Choose your language, then select the "Install Ubuntu" option. You'll launch into a bare-bones Ubuntu desktop and then into the installer application. Most U.S. users can hit Next through the first three language/location/keyboard screens. When it comes time to partition your system's hard drive, though, I'd recommend splitting it into three parts: One for the Ubuntu system, one for a swap partition, and another NTFS-formatted drive for your media. Why NTFS? It makes sharing media from your HTPC box to Windows computers easier, and it can hold gigantic files—like the kind of high-resolution videos you'll be viewing. If media sharing isn't a concern for you, go ahead and tell Ubuntu to use your whole hard disk.

Otherwise, choose the "Specify Partitions Manually," click on the big, unallocated space in the next screen, and hit "Add" at the bottom. Set up Ubuntu's own partition like so:

Hit "OK," then create another partition, about 2 GB, or 2,000 MiB in size, and choose "Linux swap" under the "Use As" heading. Finally, add one more partition by hitting "Add," choose NTFS as its format, and have it use all the rest of your space.

Click through the rest of the setup process, wait for it to finish installing, then reboot your computer and remove your thumb drive or CD when asked to do so.

Setting up Ubuntu

When your system boots up next time, you'll get a menu asking which system you want to boot into, with a 10-second timer before it heads to default (which we'll fix soon). Log in with the username and password you gave during setup—something else we'll get to optimizing.

One quick little command we have to run before getting started: Hit Alt+F2, check the "Run in Terminal" box, then enter this line and hit Run:

sudo apt-key adv --keyserver keyserver.ubuntu.com --recv-keys CEC06767

That authenticates a repository with some necessary graphics drivers to install software on this system.

Now, down to the real business. Head to the System menu in the upper-left corner, mouse over the Administration sub-menu, then choose Software Sources. On the first tab, check off the "Proprietary drivers for devices" and "Software restricted ..." options. Head to the Updates tab, and check the unchecked items. Finally, head to the "Third-Party Software" tab.

We're going to add in three lines to this list by hitting the "Add" button at bottom-left and pasting in this text. The first is Boxee's Ubuntu repository for Ubuntu 9.04, and the other two are a Ubuntu repository for the NVIDIA ION chipset inside our HTPC, known as "VDPAU" hardware. Here's all the lines in one spot:

deb http://apt.boxee.tv jaunty main
deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/nvidia-vdpau/ppa/ubuntu jaunty main
deb-src http://ppa.launchpad.net/nvidia-vdpau/ppa/ubuntu jaunty main

Hit Close, and agree to Reload your software list when prompted. Now head up to System->Administration and select Update Manager. You'll get a list of everything that needs updating, and it might be rather long.

Install the updates, then make a cup of coffee or tea while you're waiting. When you get back, you should be updated and ready to actually install some new stuff.

Installing Video Drivers and Boxee

Let's do this. Head to System->Administration, then select Synaptic Package Manager. Click the "Search" button at the top right, and in the dialog that pops up, change the "Look in:" to "Maintainer," and search for "Snider."

In the results that come back, check off these packages to install. There might be newer versions of them to try out, but I know these work with this system, on this version of Ubuntu, running this version of Boxee:

  • nvidia-glx-185
  • libxine1, libxine1-x

Back at the Synaptic main screen, hit "Search" again, change the "Look in:" to Name, and search for mplayer. Check off the version with "+svn2009" trailing in the "Latest Version" column for installation. Search again for boxee, then check to install it. If you're looking to use an infrared remote, also search out and install the lirc package and whatever dependencies it asks for. Ubuntu's own wiki offers a guide to getting set up with LIRC.

Finally, hit "Apply" in the top toolbar to install all these things on your system.

Convenient Tweaks

Once Synaptic is done installing those goodies (or while it's running, if it's taking a while), head to the System->Administration menu again, and open Login Window. Head over to the Security tab, and enable timed and automatic login for your username:

Assuming you don't expect a burglar to break into your house, fire up your HTPC and start watching your Blu-Ray rip of "Up," you should be fine with these options. They free you from needing a keyboard or mouse to get into Ubuntu, and automatically log you in when resuming from a suspend.

Next up, let's speed up that boot-up process with a quick GRUB menu edit. Hit Alt+F2, and enter this command:

gksu gedit /boot/grub/menu.lst

In the editor that pops up, head down just a bit to the "## timout sec" section, and change the value there to 0. Just one section down, remove the "#" from in front of "hiddenmenu," if it's there.

Two quick fixes, to make HDMI audio work perfectly for both Ubuntu and Boxee. First up, follow this Boxee forum poster's instructions to set up a .asoundrc file that tells Ubuntu how to route its sound. Next, open up a terminal (Applications->Accessories->Terminal), type in alsamixer and hit enter.

Hit your right arrow key over to where you see the columns for "IEC958," and be sure none of them read "MM," or muted. If they do, hit "M" to unmute them. Hit the escape key when you're done.

Your second-to-last tweak makes Boxee run right at start-up. Head to System->Preferences, choose "Startup Applications," and hit "Add." Give it a name like, oh, Boxee, and make the command /opt/boxee/run-boxee-desktop. Hit OK on that screen, then close out your Startup Applications.

Now, for the final piece: Remote desktop access from any other computer on your network. Head to the System->Preferences menu, select Remote Desktop, and configure your system to accept remote desktop connections, with a password for safety.

If you're the geeky type who knows how to remotely administer a system by SSH command line, be sure to install the openssh-server package in your Boxee box.

Finally, if you're using a Microsoft Media Center remote with your Boxee box, and you've plugged in your USB IR Receiver, you should be good to go in Boxee—it automatically works with the Media Center setup. If you're using something different, like a Hauppage remote, this guide might point you in the right direction. Myself, I mainly use the free Boxee Remote applications found in both the Android Market and Apple App Store to control Boxee and type in text with little fuss.

Running Boxee

Reboot your system, and you should shoot through Ubuntu's boot-up process, arriving straight at Boxee's log in screen.

The only major tweak you'll need to make is to Boxee's audio setup. Head to the Settings menu in the lower-left corner, then to Hardware, and then to the audio tab. Set your settings to look like those on the left, or, in text form:


From there on out, Boxee should be your multimedia workhorse. You can suspend it and wake it up with the power button (or a wake-on-LAN tool, as detailed at the Ubuntu Forums). You can use it to download torrents, directly drop files into it over SFTP, give it more video feeds, and other tweaks we've covered in our Apple TV/Boxee guide, and in Adam's XBMC guide (the latter mostly for the SFTP guide). If you want to actually use your Ubuntu desktop on your TV, just exit out of Boxee from the log-in screen or the main menu

That's just my own little Ubuntu/Boxee/HTPC setup, but I think it works quite nice. Anything I download can be transferred and played, and any broadcast shows I miss can be caught on Hulu, CBS, PBS, or any of Boxee's other great apps. Got a killer media center setup of your own to share? Tell us about it, and link it, in the comments.