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Federal Trade Commission Investigating Intel Again

It looks like another chapter is being opened in the ongoing series of inquiries into the status of Intel Corp. as a monopoly. According to an article in today's New York Times, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun a new investigation of the world's leading manufacturer of microprocessors on grounds of possible anticompetitive business practices.

Officials at the FTC told the Times that the agency has issued subpoenas to Intel, as well as its competitors, to seek evidence of any actions by the Santa Clara, Calif., chipmaker that might violate U.S. antitrust regulations. Today's news focused chiefly on Intel's pricing policies, which its critics have repeatedly called unfair in recent times. Those critics, mainly from Intel's rivals such as Advanced Micro Devices (or AMD), charge that the chip giant uses its position in the marketplace and superior resources to sell sophisticated microprocessors to computer vendors below the cost of their manufacturing, an illegal practice known as dumping.

While Intel is by far the leading maker of these chips (a market valued at US $225 billion), its status as a near-monopoly is not a violation of federal antitrust statutes in the United States, where practical monopolies are legal as long as they do not conduct what are known as predatory business practices against their smaller competitors.

The new investigation appears to be a re-opening of a similar inquiry from a decade ago by the FTC. That case escalated into a full-blown antitrust proceeding against Intel by the federal government. It was only resolved when newly appointed litigators for the nascent Bush administration decided to settle the matter out of court in 2001.

The Times report today notes that the re-opened case coincides with a change of leadership at the FTC, where outgoing Chairman Deborah P. Majoras (an architect of the Justice Departmentâ''s antitrust settlement with Microsoft in 2001 coincidentally) has been replaced by incoming Chairman William E. Kovacic, who has acted with the approval of the other members of the trade commission.

The Times reports that the investigation is still in its early stages and will undoubtedly require months to come to a preliminary conclusion as to whether more intensive measures are necessary. This will almost certainly leave the prosecution of a potential case against Intel up to the next presidential administration to consider, beginning in 2009.

Meanwhile, similar investigations against Intel concerning the same or similar charges are proceeding apace in European and Asian nations.

As of today, no information has been posted on the matter at the Web sites of either Intel or the FTC.

Apple store not friendly to Palo Alto teens caught hacking an iPhone

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Downtown Palo Alto boasts the ninth oldest Apple store in the country, opened in October 2001. From the beginning, the store encouraged kids to hang out; a low round table, surrounded by appealing round seats, held computers with games for the younger kids, the multimedia applications running on computers on taller tables drew the teens. And in the early days, before every kid had a cell phone, the staff generously let kids call home when they needed to tell their parents that they were running late. I used to have to haul my youngest away from the skateboard game running at the kid stations when he was a toddler; the Apple store has been a hangout for my 16-year-old and his friends since they were in grade school.

Basically, itâ''s a place that, for Palo Alto kids, feels like home. So it really freaked out four local teensâ''some friends of my sonâ''sâ''last week when they were messing around at the Apple store, as theyâ''d done so many times before, and suddenly got into huge trouble. In fact, store management told them that they were banned for life. From every Apple store. Everywhere in the world.

Daniel Fukuba, Eric Vicenti, and Noah Rogers were hanging out downtown last Saturday, killing time before meeting up with another kid, and went into the Apple store to play with the iPhones. Fukuba showed his friends how to download third-party applications onto one of the phones, specifically, a racing game called â''Raging Thunder.â'' (Apple originally discouraged adding such applications, threatening that they wouldnâ''t be compatible with software updates, but has announced that it will be changing that policy soon.)

A store employee, Vicenti says, came over and asked what the boys were doing. â''We said that we were just playing around with the phones,â'' he says, â''which is exactly the truth. Sure, it is slightly evasive, but that was the whole point.â'' The store manager also checked up on the boys, and then walked away. The fourth teen arrived, and the group left the store; they were half a block away when the store manager caught up with them and demanded that they come back to the store; the manager called the police. An

officer soon arrived, and the manager lectured the teens, but no arrests were made.

The teens were photographed and told that their pictures would be sent to all Apple stores. â''They said,â'' Vicenti reports, â''that we were banned for life from all Apple stores everywhere.â''

â''They kept us there for at least two hours,â'' Vicenti says. â''Eventually, because Danny and I were minors, our parents had to be called to pick us up.â''

The story hit the local papers; journalists called Apple for comment, and a spokesman for the company insisted that the teens were not banned from that or any store.

â''I was completely shocked when I read that,â'' Vicenti says. â''They did say we were banned.â'' They have gone back to the store since, and a different manager has told them that the ban wouldnâ''t be enforced.

Says Vicenti: â''After all this, I really have nothing against Apple, they still make great products. This is really the mess of Apple Retail, and the way they treat customers. While I might be allowed in the store, I am a bit repelled by the place now.â''

Perhaps the Apple stores should post a sign, â''If you hack it, you bought it.â''

Photo credit: Adriana Lukas

Plug-In Priuses: Now from your Toyota dealer!

One of the challenges of converting your Prius to a plug-in hybrid--aside from the cost ($10K to $30K)--has been the garage-shop nature of the converters.

Hymotion, owned by lithium-ion cell maker A123 Systems, has now announced that its six initial installers include four Toyota dealerships. They're in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC.

The conversion module still has to be ordered through the Hymotion website. But this now offers one-stop shopping for the Prius owner who wants to expand the car's full-electric running time, and juice it up from the wall socket at night--but doesn't want to haul the car to a third party.

One worry about the conversions, by the way, has been whether they void the manufacturer's powertrain warranty. While Toyota is clearly unhappy about any modifications to its very carefully engineered hybrid system, plug-in advocacy sites like Calcars report that many dealers either miss or ignore such conversions.

Another small step toward Plug-In Priuses, whether Toyota wants them or not ....

Mars Lander Standing By for Radio Instructions

The Phoenix science vehicle is patiently waiting on the northern plains of Mars for its handlers back on Earth to sort out a couple of communications glitches before getting to work.

Phoenix uses a pair of satellites orbiting the red planet to boost its radio signals to and from its mission control center at the University of Arizona. Since touching down 11 days ago (please see Phoenix Landing on Mars Makes History), the lander has been idled, first, by a radio cut-off with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, then by a similar shutdown with the orbiting Odyssey observatory.

NASA said the problem with Odyssey started yesterday, when the satellite's communications equipment went into "safe mode" and stopped transmitting. The cause for the shutdown was probably caused by high-energy particles from space interrupting the satellite's computer memory. NASA engineers are busy at work trying to reestablish the radio relay but don't expect the problem to be resolved before Saturday. In the meantime, the two satellites' controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., have tinkered remotely with the Reconnaissance Orbiter to get its radio system working properly.

Before the second radio glitch occurred, Phoenix was able to conduct two practice rounds of digging and dumping the clumpy soil into its onboard analysis instruments, according to a statement released yesterday by the lander's mission control center, in Tuscon, Ariz. The University of Arizona team expects to be able to resume contact with the lander later today via the Reconnaissance Orbiter and resume preliminary operations.

Phoenix will then complete a sequence of commands that are already stored in its computer. That sequence includes instructions for the lander to continue taking images required to assemble a 360-degree high-resolution panorama.

The two practice digs have already enticed scientists about some bright material in the soil just beneath the surface.

"Two scoops into the soil we see there's a white layer becoming visible in the wall of the trench," said Carol Stoker of NASA Ames Research Center, at Moffett Field, Calif., a member of the Phoenix science team.

Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith said, "We've had an impassioned discussion of whether that may be salts or ice or some other material even more exotic."

Climate Legislation Showdown

This week, the U.S. Senate opened discussion of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would institute a system of carbon trading in which emitters would buy or sell allowances, having received an initial allotment partly for free, partly in an auction. Though the bill is not likely tp pass Congress this year and is sure to be vetoed even if it does, itâ''s considered almost a foregone conclusion that the new Congress will enact some kind of carbon trading bill next year and that the newly elected president will sign it. McCain cosponsored a lineal ancester of Lieberman-Warner, and Obama promised in his victory speech on Tuesday night, June 3, to forecefully address the climate issue.

Precisely because it seems so clear that climate legislation is on its way, business and labor are squaring off, seeking to influence and mold the bill that finally makes it to the presidentâ''s desk. Yesterday, June 4, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the Senateâ''s members saying that Lieberman-Warner â''fails to preserve American jobs and the domestic economy, does little to address the international nature of global climate change, and does not sufficiently promote accelerated technology development and deployment.â''

Citing six macroeeconic studies (without actually naming them), the chamberâ''the U.S. business communityâ''s main political representativeâ''said that on any reckoning the bill would cost the United States â''a staggering amount of money.â'' It said the bill could cause the GDP to decrease as much as 3.4 percent, and that the average annual household cost of the bill could be between $1,000 and $6,700.

Those claims are not going unchallenged. The Natural Resources Defense Council has issued a study assessing â''costs and opportunities â'' under Lieberman-Warner arguing that higher energy costs will be offset by improvements in energy efficiency, aggressive deployment of renewables, andâ''starting about 2020â''extensive carbon capture and storage. â''Lieberman-Warner CO2 recuction tarets are achievable with mimla increase in total discounted energy system costs,â'' the report says.

The NRDC cooperated on a second report with CERESâ''an organization representing major institutional investors with assets that would be affected by carbon regulationâ''and two top California utilities. The report, an analysis of how the countryâ''s 100 largest electric utilities would be affected by carbon legislation, argued that auctioned allowances would provide funds for energy efficiency programs, clean energy technologies, and consumer benefits offsetting higher electricity costs.

On Tuesday this week, June 3, University of Massachusetts economists also issued a report taking issue with the chamberâ''s claims. â''Job Opportunities for the Green Economy,â'' an analysis done in cooperation with the United Steelworkers and the Center for American Progress, evaluates six climate-fighting strategies in terms of how many workers in existing occupations could find new opportunities. For example, more rapid deployment of high-performance wind turbines could provide work for the countryâ''s 168,000 sheet workers. Affordable solar energy will increase employment for 150,00 â''electrical engineersâ''â''technicians, presumably, not, sorry to say, the engineers who read and support IEEE Spectrum magazine!

Cell phones, brain tumors, teenagers, and texting

j0433100.gifIt looks like Iâ''m going to be shopping for a better text-message plan.

For the past year, Iâ''ve been fighting a losing battle against text messaging. My teenage son has a plan that gives him lots of voice minutes, but only 250 text messages. Several times heâ''s busted his text message limit, incurring overage charges as high as $20. â''Why oh why,â'' Iâ''ve pleaded, â''canâ''t you just call the person and ask about the humanities project or analysis homework or whatever instead of sending five text messages back and forth?â''

No more. From now on, Iâ''m going to be encouraging texting instead of calling, weird as that will feel. Because after years of following the cell phone and brain tumor research, while the evidence is not all in, Iâ''m thinking encouraging my kids to hold cell phones next to their heads is not a good idea. And texting instead of talking may just prevent big health problems down the road.

Cell phone radiation always made me a little nervous; I read the Swedish study back in 2002, and I do look at SAR numbers (Specific Absorption Rate, a way of measuring radiation that gets from a cell phoneâ''s antenna into the human head) when I shop for phones.

Since 2002, a number of studies have hinted at long-term problems, reporting

that people who used cell phones heavily for 10 years had a statistically signficant increase in brain tumors on the side of the head on which they typically hold the cell phone. Still, in other studies cell phones came up clean, and, the jury was widely seen to be still out, with the industry and governments awaiting the results of a 13-country study coordinated by the World Health Organization, the so-called Interphone Study. Those results have been delayed for several years; itâ''s not clear why. Meanwhile, individual researchers involved in the Interphone study have started speaking out.

According to Microwave News, one such researcher, Bruce Armstrong of the University of Sydney School of Public Health told "TodayTonight," an Australian current affairs show, that "I would not want to be a heavy user of a mobile phone. "People might be shocked to hear that the evidence does seem to be coming more strongly in support of harmful effects." And another researcher, Israel's, Siegal Sadetzki, told the Toronto Star that â''our results are in line with previous results that are showing something is going wrong here." A few weeks ago, Australian neurosurgeon Vini Khurana stated that cell phones might turn out to be a worse public health disaster than smoking or asbestos.

Meanwhile, all the doctors on television discussing Sen. Ted Kennedyâ''s glioma, a type of tumor frequently mentioned in conjunction with cell phone use, are making the disease itself more real to me.

The prudent thing to do, many doctors and scientists are advising, is to use a headset instead of talking directly into the phone. Still, wireless headsets are still radiating, albeit with a lot less power than a cell phone; there's no information yet on Bluetooth and the brain.

So texting. I think itâ''s definitely the way to go. My teenager is going to be thrilled.

American Auto Upheaval Radically Changes GHG Outlook

Jim Hansen, the GISS/Columbia University modeler who has had such a huge influence on climate policy, often observes that action plans habitually fail to keep pace with the latest developments, sometimes to their detriment. A case in point he mentioned a few years ago when I was interviewing him for a book: the near-elimination of CFCs pursuant to the Montreal Protocol had a positive implication for climate, because CFCsâ''besides being ozone eatersâ''also are potent greenhouse gases. A similar case in point from todayâ''s newsâ''the precipitous drop in U.S. large car sales.

By the end of April, as noted in an earlier blog post (below), record-high gasoline prices were beginning to have a discernible effect on U.S. driving habits. Now, with the publication of May auto sales data, industry leaders and analysts see a profound â''structural shiftâ'' or â''watershedâ'' that is likely â''permanentâ'' and â''irreversible.â'' Among the dramatic developments noted in the press, starting with a report and commentary in todayâ''s New York Times:

â'¢ For the first time since 1992, the vehicle most sold in the United States in May was not an SUV or light truck

â'¢ the two most popular cars were the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which helped Asian auto makers surpass the top three U.S. automakers in the U.S. market for the first time ever

â'¢ sales of SUVs and trucks having dipped below car sales in March and April, the May ratio of cars to trucks was 57:43

â'¢ U.S. auto sales fell 30 percent in May, and total 2008 sales may be below 15 million vehicles, compared to 17.4 in 2000

If Americans are starting to stop buying SUVs, with it costing up to $30,000 a year to fuel a top-end model, could their next step be to junk the SUVs they already own and switch to more fuel-efficient cars? If that happens, the impact on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be dramatic.

Thatâ''s worth noting this week, as the Senate opens debate on legislation to cap and trade carbon emissions. The Warner-Lieberman draft bill would impose a federal tax on gasoline that would reach 40 cents a gallon by 2030. But with gasoline prices closing in on $4/gallon and likely to go even higher, the question of a federal tax could be moot. In fact, as noted in the earlier post, the higher prices could give the United States a mighty push toward carbon reduction, helping it get into step with international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

High Gasoline Prices Start to Bite into Driving, SUV Ownership

(May 7 post)

With U.S. gasoline prices now at an all-time record high, having climbed in fits and starts for five years, the logical results appear to be finally showing up in lower gasoline consumption and a distaste for large cars and light trucks. According to a report in the May 5 issue of Business Week, the number of vehicles on the roads dropped 1.4 percent last year, and gasoline consumption is expected to dip 0.7 percent this year. Sales of SUVs and pickup trucks plummeted 27 percent in the first quarter of 2008, with total auto sales down 8 percent.

The fundamental question, for consumers, business leaders, and policymakers, is whether oil and gasoline prices will continue to trend upward and stay there, or whether the current situation is just a blip. If high prices are here to stay, then of course those who replace their big cars with smaller ones sooner will come out ahead of the game, and those automakers who anticipate that behavior will be the winners. Ford Motor, which reported a surprisingly large first-quarter profit last week, is reported to be among those betting that high prices are here to stay [and General Motors has now adopted the same philosophy].

Ironically, if gasoline prices stay in the stratosphere, the United States may be off the hook when it comes to the atmosphere. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that if one wanted to halve carbon emissions from the U.S. automotive sectorâ''enough to get the country into step with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases [without doing anything else]â''gasoline prices would have to double from their average levels in the early part of this decade, which have been around $2.50. That calculus underlay a blue-ribbon report sponsored by Princetonâ''s Woodrow Wilson School last year, which recommended increasing gasoline prices by $2.50 per gallon over a period of 10 years, as a matter of policy.

If the global oil market were to drive prices to $5 anyway, and American consumers start to believe theyâ''re really gong to stay there, thenâ''arguably!â''policy wonâ''t be necessary. [Would not be necessary, that is, to get the United States into step with the Kyoto regime, which it first embraced but then repudiated.] Over time, if econometric studies are to be believed, American drivers [at $5/gallon] will spontaneously use half as much gasoline and emit half as much carbon.

French Taxpayers Flip the Bill for Nanotechnology Consortium

While the European Commission may not object to the French government handing over â'¬46 million to an industrial consortium of 17 partners led by French chemical company Arkema Group in order to establish the GENESIS R&D programme, French taxpayers may like to have a few words about providing financial support to what the EC describes as a financial outlay â''designed in particular to compensate for market failure, given the substantial risks which the project entails.â''

In the US financial support from the government for nanotechnology comes through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and goes to research institutes in particular research areas, i.e. energy, electronics, etc.

I am trying to imagine if it is within the realm of possibility that companies like DuPont or Dow could get government funding to start up an industrial consortium of companies devoted to applying nanotechnology to market sectors, simply to minimize the risk of the venture.

The â''trickle-downâ'' theory, I suppose, is that if the consortium is successful there may be some jobs for the Frenchâ'¿and other Europeans.

Of course, if the consortium discovers that its profit margins are too small, or worse its losses too great, and need to close Genesis down, then those potential employees are out of luck. But at least the financial hardship for the Genesis partners has been softened somewhat.

Despite Higher Costs Wind Rules Renewable Roost

If you ask how much renewables can contribute right now to reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependence, itâ''s really just one renewable that counts: wind. Photovoltaic electricity is still far from competitive commercially, and as for the restâ''thermal solar, geothermal, tidal energy, and so onâ''they only account for niche shares of the generation mix. Wind on the other hand already generates close to 1 percent of U.S. electricity and could provide as much as 20 percent by 2030, according to a recent government report.

That said, the gap between the installation costs of photovoltaic electricity and wind-generated electricity has narrowed some in the last couple of years, despite upward pressure on PV prices, mainly caused by sky-high demand in Germany. A recent report done at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory confirms that higher wind installation prices account for the narrowing.

The LBL report finds that U.S. wind capacity increased 46 percent last year, amounting to a $9 billion investment. Wind installation costs, however, after dropping by about $2.7/Watt from 1982 to 2002â''from roughly $4.2/W to $1.5/Wâ''increased in recent years, plateauing at around $3/W. The main factor in the higher wind costs is the higher average cost of the turbines themselves, which has been driven up by the dollarâ''s depreciation, high global demand, an escalation in raw materials costs that has affected almost all power equipment, and more advanced turbine designs.

Even at the higher installation costs, the price of wind-generated electricity has remained highly competitive in the United States, admittedly in large part because of generous Federal and state subsidies. To arrive at a true estimate of relative prices, those subsidies have to be weighed against the almost incalculable and controversial environmental, social, and political costs of fossil fuels that do not show up in coal, oil, and natural gas prices.

LBLâ''s Annual Report on U.S. Wind Power Installation, Cost, and Performance Trends can be downloaded at the labâ''s publication site.

Shuttle Arrives at Space Station with Key Part

Relief is on the way.

The space shuttle Discovery has docked at the International Space Station carrying the pressurized section of the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), a key component for the orbiting science platform.

But the Kibo laboratory is not the component that has the media buzzing. That distinction falls to a small replacement part dispatched to fix a malfunctioning zero-gravity toilet aboard the ISS.

Photo: NASA
THANKS FOR DROPPING BY: The crew of ISS Expedition 17 welcome colleagues from Discovery's STS-124 mission to their orbiting outpost--which has been experiencing a rather embarrassing problem recently.

According to NASA, the crew of mission STS-124 maneuvered Discovery into a back flip so that their Expedition 17 counterparts on the space station could take close-up photos of the underside of the shuttle to look for damaged thermal tiles before approaching and docking at the ISS at 2:03 pm EDST. The astronauts and cosmonauts opened the hatches of the two vehicles about two hours later to exchange greetings and get down to the business of their nine-day joint operations.

The main order of that business will be three spacewalks to attach the 17-ton Japanese Pressurized Module to the ISS. This is the second of three missions designed to assemble the JEM section of the space station. Once finished, the Japanese science lab will become the largest module on the orbiting platform, offering future visitors the opportunity to conduct space medicine, biology, material production, biotechnology, and communications research.

Still, it's that spare toilet pump that's grabbing all the attention. The loo aboard the space station is a Russian-made facility that consists of two devices that collect human waste. The balky unit in question is the one used to suction urine in weightlessness. A broken valve caused it to fail recently, forcing the male crew to turn to alternate methods of relieving themselves. The problem, while not mission critical, is a hygienic inconvenience (and likely personal annoyance) for the Expedition 17 cosmonauts and astronauts. The fix for the toilet should be a simple procedure once the new part is on board.

The crew of STS-124 will spend most of their working hours moving the new Kibo lab section from the shuttle's cargo bay to its position on the exterior of the ISS, relocating the lab's logistics module, which was installed in a temporary spot during the last STS mission, and then join the two together.

Discovery also delivered Canadian-born astronaut Greg Chamitoff to replace flight engineer Garrett Reisman as a station resident for the next six months.

Upon greeting one another over 200 miles above the planet, Chamitoff told Reisman, "You have a beautiful house." Now, it's a house that should soon have a properly working toilet.

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