Planetary Goo and the Threat of Vegetarianism

About 30 years ago, we Earthlings sent a probe to check out Mercury, the tiny planet closest to the sun, and concluded that it was just a big hot rock. But after poking around on the moon and Mars for a few decades, we decided to take another look at Mercury.

Messenger, the probe that has now passed Mercury twice, has sent back a collection of photos that shake up our earlier assumptions about the planet. For example: There are a lot more volcanoes there than we originally thought — many more than on the moon, which we used to think was a pretty close approximation.

Also, there’s this blue stuff — some kind of fluid or goo or hardened lava, scientists are guessing. It fills some of the craters but not others and is generally mysterious in nature. You know how scientists loves them some mysteries.

Surely, they’ll study the blue goo in further detail when Messenger settles into orbit sometime in 2011 and begins an entire year of circling the now-fascinating little planet.

Listen to the podcast (12:21 minutes).

When Vegetarians Attack

You know that joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron? Well, it’s stories like this that add credence to the perception.

See, there’s this Web site called “Twitter,” and people go there and write short messages — they’re called “tweets” — and then other people can sign up to receive their tweets. Well, a branch of the Army’s intelligence service has discovered Twitter and determined that it could be used to spread terrorism.

And atheism, communism and vegetarianism, for that matter. Clearly, it must be stopped.

No word on whether invasion plans are in the works, but if you happen to work at Twitter, I’d start wearing a helmet to work.

Release the Ibexes!

The latest version of the Ubuntu operating system, which was codenamed “Intrepid Ibex,” has scrambled out of beta. For you inquiring minds out there who want to know, an ibex is a wild mountain goat — the kind with gigantic curved horns.

Chief among its new features — the Ubuntu distro, not the goat — are new mobility options. 3G network support lets users move from wired and WiFi networks onto 3G cell phone networks. You can also move your desktop identity around to any computer or smartphone you want — just load it onto a thumb drive.

Another new feature, the Guest Session, lets you set up a temporary password-less user account with restricted privileges so you can let a friend — or even an enemy, I suppose — use your computer without divulging any of your most guarded secrets.

Stop the Presses!

It has been one of the pillars of journalism for more than a century, and now the Christian Science Monitor is looking to break new ground as it mostly abandons the printed page. The move is a response to the ongoing exodus of readers and advertising dollars to the Web, and some experts believe it could portend the beginning of a new trend in the publishing industry.

A couple of papers in Wisconsin already have gone online-only, and now they’re joined by a major national daily. Not everyone believes that the fish-wrapper business will disappear altogether, though — at least not for another 10 years or so.

Still, if news organizations lay off any more people, they won’t have anyone left to report and write the news, let alone print and deliver it.

Oh, the Humanity!

No longer willing to offer assistance to repressive regimes around the world, a handful of Internet companies, including Google and Yahoo, have formed the Global Network Initiative.

The GNI’s purpose is to establish policies to protect Internet users and to address the human-rights consequences of doing business in international markets. Yahoo, in particular, came under fire after it gave information to Chinese authorities that led to the arrests of individuals whose only crime was telling the truth or expressing an opinion. In China, that can be a big no-no.

Adding a little human-rights and free-speech muscle to the GNI are the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch, which are also members.

The Space Between

Adversaries in the white spaces debate are dialing up the rhetoric in advance of the FCC’s scheduled Nov. 4 meeting. The commission will consider whether to allow the spaces between television channels to be used for free wireless Internet access.

Once the television stations move to digital broadcasts in February, they’ll occupy a smaller portion of the broadcast spectrum, leaving unused white space between channels. Broadcasters say transmissions in those spaces would interfere with their own signals and deny Americans the television programs that are a fundamental right of citizenship.

Huge corporate interests have big stakes on both sides of the controversy. On one side is the National Association of Broadcasters, which opposes the white spaces plan. It represents the interests of media corporations including General Electric, which owns NBC; and Disney, which owns ABC. On the other side are Google and Microsoft — which is notable if only for the fact that they’re on the same side of an issue for a change.

Turn the Page

Google has its tentacles in many things, but one of the things the search giant is most passionate about is creating a repository for all the information in the world — everything that was ever put into words or images.

Google, of course, wants to catalog and index all this data, make it searchable, and sell more ads. It ran into a snag, though when it started scanning books. Authors and publishers got miffed about a little thing called copyright and dragged Google into court.

After three years of what I’m certain were very dignified discussions, Google and the litigants came to terms.

The search giant will part with $125 million — chump change, really — while authors and publishers will keep their copyrights, books will get scanned, Internet users will gain access to more information, and marketers will get more ways to deliver their messages. Ain’t life grand.

Education Collaboration

Say you’re an everyday guy — Joe Sixpack or Jane 12-gauge or any other kind of riff-raff. And say you want some kind of online group calendaring, document-sharing and e-mail service. Well, you can get that for free from Google, Yahoo, or a bunch of other providers.

But if you’re a large organization, you want a service that can handle a lot of users, and you want to be able to customize the interface to make it suit the way you do business. Your options are a little more limited — but one outfit making a name for itself here is Zimbra, owned by Yahoo.

Zimbra has announced a new offering for universities and other educational institutions. Those organizations can now access the Zimbra Collaboration Suite as a fully hosted service.

Before, you had to either host it yourself or hook up with a local partner. Now, as long as you’re a place of learning, you can get it through the so-called cloud.

Everybody Loves Netflix

Netflix seems to have no trouble making friends. This year alone, it’s partnered up with Roku, LG, Samsung, Microsoft and, most lately, TiVo.

The goal of all these hook-ups: Get people watching videos from the Netflix streaming online library, regardless of what sort of set-top box or video game console they use. If it can connect to the Internet and a TV screen, Netflix is apparently interested.

Delivering DVDs through the mail has been good for Netflix in the past, but the day may come when most customers would rather grab video instantly off the Net than wait for some scratched-up DVD you have to walk all the way out to the mailbox to pick up. Best not to be living on that ship when it sinks.

The deal with TiVo took four years of courtship, but starting in December, users who subscribe to Netflix and own a Series 3, HD or HD XL TiVo can watch at will.

What’s the Definition?

If you know your TiVos, you’ll notice that all the models that support this Netflix partnership are the company’s high-definition models. But the Netflix online library is strictly standard definition — sometimes a little worse.

That’s about to change, though — the company says it’s rolling out a library of about 300 titles available for streaming in HD.

The Microsoft Xbox 360 will also be able to access HD content at no extra charge. That’s all well and good, but more def means more data, so are we looking at three-hour buffer times? That will not be the case, Netflix’s Steve Swasey told us. His words: “Just play and it starts.”

Tie Me Up

Bundled service is the hot item among communications providers: phone, TV, Internet, all on one bill. Basically, once you own the customer’s entire ability to connect with the outside world, you’ve won.

But that’s not always easy to achieve. For example, DirecTV wants to sell you Internet service, but getting the Web via a satellite dish is usually pretty horrible, so they have to create a sort of telecom Frankenstein monster and partner with AT&T — which is just getting started with its very own U-verse fiber optics television service.

There are lots of messes like this — long story short, it’s a cluster out there, and now Cox Communications wants to add its own twist to the mix.

Cox has already succeeded in scoring a triple play — it can sell customers landline, cable and Internet services. Now it wants to go for a homer with wireless. It’s already spent over half a billion dollars to buy up a sliver of wireless spectrum, and in 2009, it hopes to roll out cell phone service to Atlanta, Las Vegas, New Orleans, San Diego, Omaha, and parts of Kansas and New Mexico.

Naturally, there has to be a tangle — Cox will contract with Sprint Nextel to provide service when a subscriber wanders out of its coverage areas.

What’s an Eggman?

The Beatles are striking out for new territory in their pursuit of a younger generation’s affections.

The band will be featured in a play-along game made by Harmonix, makers of “Rock Band.” This is a first — Beatles music hasn’t been sold in this type of format before.

All together now: The Beatles are getting their own video game. If you’re of a certain age, then the idea of playing a “Rock Band”-esque game featuring the Fab Four’s music will almost certainly make you twist and shout. The big question is this: Will younger gamers raised on Metallica and Pearl Jam want to play a ’60s-based game eight days a week, or will they simply let it be? It’s an enigma. They are the eggmen, I am the walrus, coo coo kachoo.

Also in this week’s podcast: Google and Russia get into it; Amazon brings EC2 out of beta ; LinkedIn offers productivity apps.

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