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Aug 23, 2012

Technology :; Survey: Indonesians Keener on Cyber Socializing

A recent survey conducted by the market research firm Ipsos showed that many Indonesians are more active in socializing online than in the real world.

“Long work hours and a busy life often prevent us from picking up the telephone to call our friends or to make time to gather with them. Internet technology and current communication gadgets provide an easy solution to socializing and maintaining contact with others,” Iwan Murty, the managing director of Ipsos Indonesia, said in an official statement on Friday.

Iwans added that communicating online will only become easier in the future and therefore more popular.

The survey, conducted in early 2012, revealed that 32 percent of Indonesians were more active in the cyber world in terms of communicating with others. Indonesia ranked third amongst countries in this regard, after China and India, who recorded 42 percent and 34 percent rates, respectively;

The countries with the lowest percentages of Internet-socializing citizens were Hungary (4 percent), Italy (9 percent) and Germany (10 percent).

Twenty-one percent of those questioned in Hong Kong, along with 22 percent in Japan and Saudi Arabia, aired worries that their online socializing habits could potentially impact their careers in a negative way since much of their Internet activity could be viewed by their current or future employers. Twenty-nine percent of Indonesians polled expressed this concern.

The survey also showed that while expressing their opinions online, Indonesians opted mostly to sympathize with the majority viewpoint and not deviate from the status quo or make comments that were starkly at odds with others — ninety-three percent of those questioned in Indonesia chose to go with the flow. The figure for Brazil was 84 percent and for Japan 81 percent.

Italy represented the opposite, with only 28 percent of people opting to side with the majority opinion. Saudi Arabia and Russia followed with 38 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Additionally, the survey demonstrated that social networking was affecting people’s shopping habits. One of every four respondents said they were more likely to buy goods that had been “liked” or “followed” by friends.

In China, 54 percent of those questioned cited the influence of their friend’s choices. In India, the figure was at 44 percent, while in Turkey it was 39 percent, the same figure recorded for Indonesia.

Ipsos holds monthly online surveys on consumers in 24 countries across the globe.

Technology :; Anonymous Claims It Hacked Australian Spy Agency

Hacking group Anonymous on Friday claimed to have shut down a computer server belonging to Australia’s domestic spy agency ASIO, reportedly briefly closing down access to its public webpage.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) acknowledged some disruption to its website.

“ASIO is aware that there may have been some technical issues with its public website,” a spokesperson said.

“ASIO’s public website does not host any classified information and any disruption would not represent a risk to ASIO’s business.”

Micro-blogging site Twitter has carried comments in recent days that ASIO and Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) sites were being targeted by Australian hackers linked to Anonymous.

In an early Thursday morning post on its Twitter feed Anonymous Australia (@AuAnon) wrote: “The anonymous Operation Australia hackers have today again been busy with further attacks on the ASIO and DSD website”.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that ASIO’s website was down for at least 30 minutes Friday morning, but it appeared to be loading normally Friday afternoon.

The group Anonymous, which is believed to be a loosely affiliated network of “hacktivists”, has attacked sites around the world including those of MasterCard and Visa, the US Justice Department, and the Tunisian and Yemen governments.

In 2011, ASIO revealed it had established a cyber intelligence unit although it is believed to have been operating for some time before it was announced.

The then attorney-general Robert McClelland said while traditional espionage still posed risks, “the explosion of the cyber world has expanded infinitely the opportunities for the covert acquisition of information by both state and non-state actors.”

Aug 22, 2012

Technology :; 10 suspected militants killed by US drones in Pakistan

American drones fired a flurry of missiles in a Pakistani tribal area bordering Afghanistan Sunday, killing a total of 10 suspected militants, Pakistani officials said.

In the first strike, missiles fired from unmanned American spy planes hit two vehicles near the Afghan border, killing at least seven militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
The strike came in the Mana area of North Waziristan, the officials added.

The officials say the area is dominated by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a commander whose forces often strike US troops in Afghanistan, but they did not know whether his men were the targets of Sundays' strike. A US drone strike Saturday also in North Waziristan killed five Gul Bahadur allies.

About 10 hours later on Sunday, two missiles destroyed a home also in the Mana area, killing three militants, the officials said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

The drone program is hotly contested in Pakistan.
Most Pakistanis feel the strikes violate the country's sovereignty and kill innocent civilians. The U.S. maintains they are directed against militants and necessary to combat groups like al-Qaida.

North Waziristan is one of the last tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan, where the military has yet to launch an operation to root out militants. The area has become a safe haven for fighters who use it as a base from which to attack American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has urged Pakistan repeatedly to conduct a military operation there, and earlier this week U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told The Associated Press that Pakistan was preparing an operation targeting the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan.

Pakistan has yet to confirm this. The country has been reluctant to undertake an offensive there, saying its military is already overtaxed by fighting in other tribal areas and parts of Pakistan. But many in the U.S. believe Pakistan does not want to upset the many militant groups there that could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces leave.

Technology :; At Trial, It's Samsung's Turn to Say Apple Copied

A Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. expert witness testified on Tuesday that Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad violate three of Samsung’s patents, as the South Korean electronics company went on offense in the third week of a high stakes trial.

Dr. Woodward Yang, an electrical engineering professor at Harvard, said Apple’s products use Samsung-patented features for mobile devices, including the process for seamlessly emailing photos. He was one of Samsung’s first witnesses after a parade of Apple experts said Samsung phones and tablets violated Apple’s patents.

Additionally, one of Samsung’s designers testified that she did not rely on Apple designs to create icons for Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphone line.

Apple and Samsung are going toe-to-toe in a patents dispute mirroring a struggle for industry supremacy between two rivals that control more than half of worldwide smartphone sales.   

The US company accuses Samsung of copying the design and some features of its iPad and iPhone, and is asking for a sales ban in addition to monetary damages. The Korean company, which is trying to expand in the United States, says Apple infringed several patents, including some for its key wireless technology.

Apple concluded presenting evidence regarding its own patents this week, and Samsung started calling witnesses. On Tuesday, Yang said Samsung’s patents were filed before the introduction of the iPhone in 2007.

Yang focused on patents that cover smartphone features, not wireless technology. One of those patents covers technology for easily finding photos in an album.

“The idea here was, let’s have a bookmark,” Yang said.

 Under questioning from Apple attorney Bill Lee, Yang acknowledged he had not seen evidence that Samsung actually used any of those features in its own smartphones.

Later on Tuesday, Samsung called designer Jeeyuen Wang, who said she and a large Korean team worked hard for three months to create Samsung’s own icon designs for Galaxy S phones.

“I slept perhaps two hours, or three hours a night,” Wang said.

Apple attorney Michael Jacobs showed Wang internal Samsung documents — with her name on them — containing references to Apple icons. However, under questioning from Samsung attorney John Quinn, Wang said some of those documents were created well after Samsung had finished its own designs.

In an attempt to invalidate some of Apple’s patents in the case, Samsung also presented evidence this week to show that Apple’s patents cover technological advances — like multitouch — that had already been developed before Apple claims to have invented it.  

Technology :; Tech Review: Sony's Xperia Go is a Tough but Clunky Smartphone

Sony’s rugged Xperia Go phone can stand up to daily use, and then some. Bang it on a table, sink it in a glass of beer and it will keep working. The Android phone can even survive being left in the snow, an impressive but ultimately useless feature in tropical Indonesia.

But the phone’s resilience comes with a price. Forget about dedicated camera or volume buttons, or a shiny exterior. The entire body of the slim iPhone-sized phone is coated in waterproof plastic, giving the Xperia Go a utilitarian, but ultimately cheap-looking finish.

Removing the phone’s SIM card and battery is also a chore, thanks to the Xperia Go’s tight-fitting seams.

Text-happy mobile phone users might find the touchscreen lacking thanks to a tightly packed keyboard and annoyingly assertive auto-correct, which pops in a large window on the already cramped screen.

The phone’s interface appears dated. It uses the old Android 2.3.7 “Gingerbread” operating system instead of the new Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” system. The Xperia Go utilizes the same user interface as most Sony Mobile smartphones, with a centralized main menu and numerous home screens.

The phone works with 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth connections. It can also be used as a mobile hotspot with its USB connection for PCs.

The screen’s 480 x 320 resolution is clear enough for even the most colorful video games, but the phone’s processor can lag when running graphics-heavy applications.

The rear-mounted 5 megapixel camera lacks the crispness mobile phone photogs have come to expect.

Video is choppy at best and lacks the smooth HD-level quality of more expensive Apple and Samsung smartphones.

The Xperia Go’s battery life is impressive, with a life of 17 hours under normal usage if it is fully charged. The battery is fully charged after an hour and a half.

The phone’s main selling point seems to be its toughness, but the phone is built for survival, not use in extreme conditions. The Xperia Go may survive being submerged in water, but the touchscreen doesn’t work underwater. And without a dedicated external camera button, don’t plan to use it on any snorkeling trips.

The Xperia Go is already available in Indonesia with the price around Rp 3 million.

Aug 21, 2012

Technology :; Megaupload Boss Plans to Launch Music Service

Megaupload boss Kim Dotcom has announced plans to launch a new online music venture this year as he prepares to fight a US attempt to extradite him from New Zealand to face online piracy charges.

Dotcom’s original plans for the service, called Megabox, were disrupted in January when New Zealand police arrested him after raiding his Auckland mansion as part of a major US investigation into alleged copyright theft.

The 38-year-old, who is free on bail, took to Twitter this week to say that Megabox was back on the drawing board and would launch in 2012.

“Yes... Megabox is also coming this year,” he told his 110,000 followers on the micro-blogging site, promising the service would be “Bigger. Better. Faster. 100 percent safe & unstoppable.”

Dotcom did not reveal a specific launch date or details of how the service would work.

He told technology website last December that Megabox would allow artists keep 90 percent of earnings from their songs by letting them sell directly to consumers, bypassing record labels.

The German national is due to face a court hearing in March next year which will determine if US authorities can extradite him and three co-accused on charges of money laundering, racketeering, fraud and online copyright theft.

He faces up to 20 years jail if convicted in a US court.

Dotcom, who changed his name from Kim Schmitz, has denied the charges and tweeted as recently as Tuesday that he was not guilty.

The FBI and US Justice Department allege Megaupload sites netted more than $175 million in criminal proceeds and cost copyright owners more than $500 million by offering pirated copies of movies, TV shows and other content.

Technology :; Mars Rover Takes ‘Cool’ Detour: NASA

The US space agency NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity will make a wide detour to explore a “cool” geographical hot spot on Mars, scientists said Friday.

The scientists also reported they found temperatures in the Red Planet’s Gale Crater to be just above freezing, the first monitoring of Mars temperatures in three decades.

Before driving to its destination at Mount Sharp, which may contain traces of water, Curiosity will head in the opposite direction, to a spot NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has dubbed Glenelg.

The Pasadena lab said the geologically-rich area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain 1,640 feet (500 meters) from the rover’s landing site.

A light-colored patch of terrain in the region indicates to scientists “a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity.”

A cluster of small craters may represent “an older or harder surface” and another spot features a patch of land resembling the rover’s landing site, before the nuclear-powered apparatus “scoured away some of the surface,” NASA said.

Scientists said they chose the name Glenelg because it is a palindrome -- a word read the same way backward and forward — and the rover will need to travel back in the same direction to head toward Mount Sharp.

The Glenelg trek will be the rover’s first “moderate duration drive target,” Mars Science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger told reporters, explaining the decision to risk traveling off the planned route.

“It looks cool,” he said.

Grotzinger estimated the rover’s journey will take between three weeks and two months to arrive at Glenelg, where it will stay for roughly a month, before heading to the base of Mount Sharp.

Analysts have said it may be a full year before the remote-controlled rover gets to the base of the peak, which is believed to be within a dozen miles (20 kilometers) of the rover’s landing site.

A photo of the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, taken from Curiosity’s landing site, shows “hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three-story buildings.”

Scientists hope the hydrated minerals thought to be concentrated in the bottom half of the photographed lower reaches will “reveal the area’s geological history.”

The Mars Science Laboratory is expected to travel as far as halfway up Mount Sharp, a towering three-mile Martian mountain with sediment layers that may be up to a billion years old.

NASA plans to obtain photos of the summit “in a week or two.”

Grotzinger noted the team’s report on the Martian crater’s temperature was “really an important benchmark for Mars Science.”

“It’s been exactly 30 years since the last long duration monitoring weather station was present on Mars,” when Viking 1 stopped communicating with Earth in 1982,” he said.

The $2.5 billion rover arrived on Mars at 05:31 GMT on August 6.

Aug 20, 2012

Technology :; Jokowi Hurls Tomatoes at Jakarta's Ills, in a New Online Game

Gubernatorial candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is throwing exploding tomatoes at corrupt politicians in an effort to root out Jakarta's evils and save the city in a new online game. 

“Selamatkan Jakarta” (“Save Jakarta”), which was launched on Saturday, has attracted thousands of players on the desktop and Facebook versions of the game.

The 30 level game features a cartoon Jokowi in his iconic checkered shirt hurling tomato bombs. The object is to target the “enemies” of Jakarta such as corrupt entrepreneurs, while avoiding good citizens.

As players advance, there are more targets, and more warga yang baik (good citizens) to avoid.  Several photos appear in the transition between levels, such as the slogan “new Jakarta without violence.”

“There are now 11,300 people playing the desktop version and 596 who play via facebook,” Irvan Fauzi, the programmer of digital art studio Metric Design, said on Monday, adding that the game is still being developed and currently in it’s Beta version.

Internasional :: Sudan crash: Minister Ghazi al-Sadiq Abdel Rahim dies

The Sudanese government's religion minister has been killed in a plane crash along with all the other 31 people on board, official media say.

Two state ministers and the leader of a national political party were also among the dead.
The civilian aircraft, which was also carrying several military officials, came down in the Nuba Mountains. 

It was on its way to South Kordofan for an Eid al-Fitr celebration, to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Apart from Guidance and Religious Endowments Minister Ghazi al-Sadiq Abdel Rahim, an official list of the dead included:
  • Justice Party Chairman Makki Ali Balayil
  • Mahjub Abdel Rahim Tutu, state minister at the Youth and Sports Ministry
  • Issa Daifallah, state minister at the Ministry of Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife
  • Several ranking members of the security forces
  • Several officials from Khartoum state
  • Media representatives and six crew
The aircraft came down in the Talodi area of South Kordofan, en route from the capital Khartoum.

The town of Talodi, some 50km (30 miles) from the border with South Sudan, lies on a plain, next to a range of hills.

A television statement said the weather prevented the aircraft from landing at its first attempt. Second time round, the plane hit a mountain. 

An unnamed civil aviation representative told state radio the plane was an Antonov.
A civil war broke out in South Kordofan more than a year ago, and Talodi has been attacked by rebels several times. However a rebel spokesman said his forces had nothing to do with the crash, the BBC's James Copnall reports.

There have been several deadly plane crashes in Sudan in recent years.
The authorities complain that it is difficult to get spare parts because of US sanctions against Khartoum. 

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Technology :; Nokia to Unveil Windows 8 Smartphone In September: Report

Finnish telecom giant Nokia and Microsoft plan to unveil a smartphone equipped with the US software giant’s Windows 8 operating system in New York on September 5, a report said Wednesday.

The Helsingin Sanomat daily did not cite any sources but said the beleaguered Nokia could also unveil its first tablet computer at the event.

The Finnish company’s new strategy is phasing out its Symbian smartphones in favour of a partnership with Microsoft.

That alliance has produced a first line of Lumia smartphones, which Nokia is counting on to help it survive in a rapidly changing landscape marked by stiff competition from RIM’s Blackberry, Apple’s iPhone and handsets running Google’s Android platform.

That took a hit when Microsoft warned that existing Lumia handsets would not be able to run its Windows 8 upgrade.

The company, which in 2008 enjoyed more than 40 percent of the global mobile phone market, was already struggling to maintain its leading position when it entered the Microsoft partnership.

Nokia no longer provides its global market share figures, but has reportedly now seen the number drop below 20 percent.

Technology :; New Role for Drones: Wildlife, Eco Conservation

They're better known as stealthy killing machines to take out suspected terrorists with pinpoint accuracy. But drones are also being put to more benign use in skies across several continents to track endangered wildlife, spot poachers and chart forest loss.

Although it's still the "dawn of drone ecology," as one innovator calls it, these unmanned aerial vehicles are already skimming over Indonesia's jungle canopy to photograph orangutans, protecting rhinos in Nepal and studying invasive aquatic plants in Florida.

Activists launched a long-range drone in December to locate and photograph a Japanese whaling ship as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society attempted to block Japan's annual whale hunt in Antarctic waters.

Relatively cheap, portable and earth-hugging, they fill a gap between satellite and manned aircraft imagery and on-the-ground observations, says Percival Franklin at the University of Florida, which has been developing such drones for more than a decade.

"The potential uses are almost unlimited," says Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, testing drones this year over Indonesia's Tripa peat forest where fires set by palm oil growers are threatening the world's highest density habitat of the great apes.

Conservation is one of the latest roles for these multi-taskers, either autonomously controlled by on-board computers or under remote guidance of a navigator. Ranging in size from less than half a kilogram (pound) to more than 18 metric tons (20 tons), drones have been used for firefighting, road patrols, hurricane tracking and other jobs too dull, dirty or dangerous for piloted craft.

Most prominently, they have been harnessed by the U.S. military in recent years, often to detect and kill opponents in America's "war on terror" in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

A conservation drone pioneer, Lian Pin Koh of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, says the idea came to him after another sweaty, jungle slog in Sabah, Malaysia, hauling heavy equipment for his field work.

"I told my assistant, who happened to be my wife, 'How wonderful it would be if we could fly over that area rather than walk there again tomorrow,'" recalled the Singaporean expert on tropical deforestation, and a model plane hobbyist.

Unlike eco-drones in the United States, mostly custom-built or commercial models, Koh last year cobbled together a far cheaper, off-the-shelf version that poorer organizations and governments in the developing world can better afford.

He and partner Serge Wich bought a model plane — some are available in China for as little as $100 — added an autopilot system, open source software to program missions, and still and video cameras. All for less than $2,000, or ten times cheaper than some commercial vehicles with similar capabilities.

This year, they have flown more than 200 mostly test runs in Asia using an improved version with a 2-meter (6.5 foot) wing span, air time of 45 minutes and a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) range.
The drones were flown over rough terrain in Malaysia where GPS-collared elephants are difficult to monitor from the ground. In Nepal's Chitwan National Park, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Nepal Army conducted trials on detecting rhino and elephant poachers. The duo also assisted the Ugalla Primate Project to head count chimpanzees in western Tanzania.

"Counting orangutan nests is the main way of surveying orangutan populations," says Graham Usher of the Sumatran project, which captured one of the apes atop a palm tree feeding on palm heart in a sharp photograph. From higher altitudes the drones, he said, also provide high-resolution, real-time images showing where forests are being cleared and set ablaze.

By contrast ground expeditions are time-consuming, logistically cumbersome and expensive. A conventional orangutan census in Sumatra, which may also involve helicopters and aircraft, costs some $250,000. Surveying land use by satellite is likewise costly and hampered by frequent cloud cover over tropical areas.

But there are drawbacks with drones, including landing them in often thickly vegetated areas since they need clear touch-down zones of about 100 by 100 meters (yards). Koh said he was working to rig the vehicle with a parachute to allow landing in confined space.

Franklin says the hardware and image interpretation are still being developed as more missions are planned in the United States, ranging from counting pygmy rabbit burrows in Idaho to monitoring salmon-eating seabirds off the Oregon coast.

The University of Florida is testing another "war on terror" weapon, thermal imaging, to hunt for Burmese pythons invading the state's Everglades, having found the snakes regulate temperatures of their nests in a way that makes them visible through such technology.

Other eyes-in-the-sky increasingly used for conservation tasks are ultralights, birdlike craft with a major advantage over drones — the human touch.

"It's the closest thing we have come to flying like birds 30,000 years after coming out of caves," says Mark Silverberg, preparing to take a reporter up in a para-motor ultralight, one earlier hired by conservation groups to photograph and video Mekong River dolphins, tiger habitat in Myanmar and denuded hills in northern Thailand.

Taking off from a fallow rice field in Pranburi district, south of the Thai capital Bangkok, we nearly brush branches as our two-seater ultralight craft needles through stands of trees, follows a flock of water fowl just below us, then soars to 300 meters (980 feet) for an all-horizons view. Where humanity intersects with nature is clearly evident, and beyond loom limestone cliffs of a national park invaded by polluting shrimp farms.

"I can really craft a shoot, a sequence, show scenes better than drones because there is a human being who can take in and react to the whole environment more immediately and make adjustments," says Silverberg, an American who runs Paramotor Thailand.

The ultralight, he explains, has other advantages over most eco-drones: it can remain airborne for up to 3 hours, cover 70 kilometers (43 miles) and carry heavier payloads. But ultralights are rather noisy and pilots are reluctant to fly over water or thick vegetation in event of an emergency landing.

"All in all, there's really no competition with drones," says Silverberg after the flight over south of Bangkok. "Both are really great tools for conservation."

Aug 19, 2012

The reason the National Commission on Human Rights Saying that "Lumpur Lapindo" is a crime.

National Human Rights Commission has determined Lapindo mud case as a criminal offense committed human rights Lapindo Brantas Inc. Lupur bursts that have taken place since 2006 that left thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods.

Commission calls on the Sidoarjo mud disaster ekosida alias as environmental destruction. These losses caused by the Lapindo Lumpur Lapindo both environmentally destructive and dangerous to humans:
  • At least 8200 people who dwelt in the villages around the blast site were evacuated. More than 25,000 people displaced by the destruction of 10 426 houses and 77 places of worship.
  • Damaged agricultural land covers 25.61 hectares of cane land in the village of Renokenongo, Jatirejo, and Kedungcangkring. An area of ​​172.39 hectares of rice land in Siring, Renokenongo, Jatirejo, Kedungbendo, Sentul, Basuki Jabon, and Pejarakan Jabon.
  • Loss of more than 1,600 head of livestock such as poultry, goats, cows, and deer.
  • 30 Factory was forced to stop production and lay off thousands of workers to the total number of 1873 people.
  • No proper functioning of the four government offices, schools, Headquarters Koramil Porong and destruction caused by power lines and telephone brunt of mud.

Pertamina's gas-pipeline explosion that killed 14 people were killed and dozens were injured. The dead were workers and security guards who were repairing the impact of the Lumpur Lapindo.

Environmental destruction caused by these bursts have an enormous impact. "Unfortunately the Commission can not put it into the category of serious human rights violations since the law did not support us," said Commissioner for Human Rights National Commission Ridha Saleh, Wednesday, August 15, 2012.

Law on the Court of Human Rights was only familiar with two types of crimes as serious violations of human rights, namely genocide and crimes against humanity. Therefore, the Commission plans to include a clause regarding the amendment ekosida Act No. 26 of 2000 on Human Rights Court.

Aug 18, 2012

Technology :: NASCIO’s New Strategic Plan Focuses on the Future of CIOs

The largest organization of government CIOs announced a new strategic plan on July 26. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) held a meeting to determine exactly what the organization's purpose, goals and guiding principles would be.

According to the NASCIO website, the new mission of the organization is "to foster government excellence through leadership of quality business practices, information management and technology policy." The new vision of the organization is a "government in which the public is fully served through business innovation and the efficient and effective use of technology policy."

The new plan focuses on the future of CIOs, said Dugan Petty, NASCIO president and CIO of Oregon. “The new strategic plan reinforces the association’s mission, vision and guiding principles and strengthens NASCIO’s ability to support CIOs as state leaders,” he said.

Aug 17, 2012

Science :: Biology's Master Programmers

For more than a decade, synthetic biologists have promised to revolutionize the way we produce fuels, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. It turns out, however, that programming new life forms is not so easy. Now some of these same scientists are turning back to nature for inspiration.

George Church is an imposing figure—over six feet tall, with a large, rectangular face bordered by a brown and silver nest of beard and topped by a thick mop of hair. Since the mid-1980s Church has played a pioneering role in the development of DNA sequencing, helping—among his other achievements—to organize the Human Genome Project. To reach his office at Harvard Medical School, one enters a laboratory humming with many of the more than 50 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows over whom Church rules as director of the school's Center for Computational Genetics. Passing through an anteroom of assistants, I find Church at his desk, his back to me, hunched over a notebook computer that makes him look even larger than he is. 

Church looms especially large these days because of his role as one of the most influential figures in synthetic biology, an ambitious and radical approach to genetic engineering that attempts to create novel biological entities—everything from enzymes to cells and microbes—by combining the expertise of biology and engineering. He and his lab are credited with many of the advances in harnessing and synthesizing DNA that now help other researchers modify microörganisms to create new fuels and medical treatments. When I ask Church to describe what tangible impact synthetic biology will have on everyday life, he leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head, and says, "It will change everything. People are going to live healthier a lot longer because of synthetic biology. You can count on it." 

Such grandiosity is not uncommon among the practitioners of synthetic biology. Ever since Church and a few other researchers began to combine biology and engineering a dozen years ago, they have promised it would "change everything." And no wonder. The very idea of synthetic biology is to purposefully engineer the DNA of living things so that they can accomplish tasks they don't carry out in nature. Although genetic engineering has been going on since the 1970s, a rapid drop in the cost of decoding and synthesizing DNA, combined with a vast increase in computer power and an influx into biology labs of engineers and computer scientists, has led to a fundamental change in how thoroughly and swiftly an organism's genetics can be modified. Church says the technology will eventually lead to all manner of breakthroughs: we will be able to replace diseased tissues and organs by reprogramming cells to make new ones, create novel microbes that efficiently secrete fuels and other chemicals, and fashion DNA switches that turn on the right genes inside a patient's cells to prevent arteries from getting clogged. 

Even though some of these applications are years from reality, Church has a way of tossing off such predictions matter-of-factly. And it's easy to see why he's optimistic. The cost of both decoding DNA and synthesizing new DNA strands, he has calculated, is falling about five times as fast as computing power is increasing under Moore's Law, which has accurately predicted that chip performance will double roughly every two years. Those involved in synthetic biology, who often favor computer analogies, might say it's becoming exponentially easier to read from, and write into, the source code of life. These underlying technology trends, says Church, are leading to an explosion in experimentation of a sort that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. 

Up to now, it's proved stubbornly difficult to turn synthetic biology into a practical technology that can create products like cheap biofuels. Scientists have found that the "code of life" is far more complex and difficult to crack than anyone might have imagined a decade ago. What's more, while rewriting the code is easier than ever, getting it right isn't. Researchers and entrepreneurs have found ways to coax bacteria or yeast to make many useful compounds, but it has been difficult to optimize such processes so that the microbes produce significant quantities efficiently enough to compete with existing commercial products. 

Church is characteristically undeterred. At 57, he has survived cancer and a heart attack, and he suffers from both dyslexia and narcolepsy; before I visited him, one of his colleagues warned that I shouldn't be surprised if he fell asleep on me. But he has founded or taken an advisory role in more than 50 startup companies—and he stayed awake throughout our time together, apparently excited to describe how his lab has found ways to take advantage of ultrafast sequencing and other tools to greatly speed up synthetic biology. Among its many projects, Church's lab has invented a technique for rapidly synthesizing multiple novel strings of DNA and introducing them simultaneously into a bacterial genome. In one experiment, researchers created four billion variants of E. coli in a single day. After three days, they found variants of the bacteria in which production of a desired chemical was increased fivefold. 

The idea, Church explains, is to sort through the variations to find "an occasional hopeful monster, just as evolution has done for millions of years." By mimicking in lab experiments what takes eons in nature, he says, he is radically improving the odds of finding ways to make microbes not just do new things but do them efficiently. 

A DNA Turn-On 

In some ways, the difficulties researchers have faced making new, more useful life forms shouldn't come as a surprise. Indeed, a lesson of genome research over the last few decades is that no matter how elegantly compact the DNA code is, the biology it gives rise to is consistently more complex than anyone anticipated. When I began reporting the early days of gene discovery 30 years ago, biologists, as they often do, thought reductively. When they found a gene involved in disease, the discovery made headlines. Scientists said they believed that potent new medicines could soon deactivate malfunctioning versions of genes, or that gene therapy could be used to replace them with healthy versions in the body. 

The early biotech companies also employed a one-gene-at-a-time approach. Companies would locate the gene that made a particular protein, such as insulin; then, using gene-splicing technology first developed in the 1970s, they would snip open the DNA of a bacterium and slide in the insulin-making gene. It's a technology that has led to today's biotech industry. 

Yet some scoffed at the idea that such techniques involved any real engineering. "To us, it was no more engineering than changing a red light bulb with a green light bulb," says James Collins, a Boston University bioengineer who is credited with helping create the field of synthetic biology in 2000. "Many of us thought that working at the single-gene level was just a starting point, that we really needed to figure out how all these newly identified genes arising from the Human Genome Project fit into networks, pathways, and circuits inside the cell." By comparison, says Collins, "synthetic biology is genetic engineering on steroids." 

I met Collins on a rainy winter day in his office on the BU campus. He's an enthusiastic storyteller, full of details, digressions, and gossip. And at 46, he has lived through the conception and birth of synthetic biology. Collins told me how he and other engineers in the late 1990s felt left out of what appeared to be the most important science of the time, the sequencing of the human genome. It seemed that every other cover of the journal Science was hailing some new gene breakthrough. But with a slew of unanalyzed DNA data piling up in computer databases, it was becoming clear that biologists didn't know how genetic parts worked together. Collins says, "We had felt like we were kids outside a candy store. So we figured, 'How can we get in?'" 

Collins wanted to study cellular processes by constructing gene networks rather than taking them apart. As a first step, he built a biological toggle circuit. A toggle is a mechanism with two possible states—in the case of a light switch, on or off. In the switch he and his colleagues built from DNA, two genes next to each other in a bacterial genome both produced proteins when they were "on." But Collins set things up so that each protein would block production of the other—if gene 1 was on, it would keep gene 2 off, and vice versa. With the aid of chemicals or a thermal pulse, Collins could flip between the two states. 

The DNA toggle switch was analogous to an electronic transistor, able to store a single bit of information. It was also an engineered example of the kind of feedback loop that often determines whether cells grow, divide, or die. "The idea that you could build a circuit out of biological parts helped launch the field of synthetic biology," says Collins. The results were published in January 2000. 

Soon Collins's toggle was joined by an expanding list of DNA circuits, including biosensors, oscillators, bacterial calculators, and similar molecular gadgetry. Researchers even established a Registry of Standard Biological Parts: 7,100 different DNA structures are available to order. Scientists were excited by the idea that biology might be modular and predictable, like something made with Lego blocks or computer code. Many scrambled to found companies that they hoped would commercialize the technology to produce fuels, drugs, or other products. 

While comparisons to computer programming inspired many researchers, however, these tended to oversimplify biology, which has not proved entirely predictable. Furthermore, the claims that some synthetic-­biology companies made now appear to have been overly optimistic, Collins says. 

Indeed, Collins believes the rush to commercialize has been a mistake. "The companies are sucking the oxygen out of the field," he says, noting that they have hired scores of geneticists from university labs. They're "scooping up our seed corn, the young researchers who should be staying in academic labs working through new ways to engineer biology." He worries that the race to apply the new technology means "there's going to be a number of biotech carcasses on the side of the road in the near future." 

Not even George Church has been immune: Codon Devices, a company he cofounded in 2004, was forced to shut down. Codon, in Church's words, was established to be the Intel of the bioengineering industry, building ready-made synthetic-biological modules that researchers could use to redesign, say, a yeast. The company "burned through its cash," he laments. 

Nature's Code
Church hopes his latest enterprise avoids a similar fate. Called Warp Drive Bio, the company combines computer science, chemistry, and genetic engineering in ways that would not have been possible until recently. It aims to use ultrafast DNA sequencing and synthetic-biology techniques, some of which Church pioneered, to hunt for potential medicines by scouring the DNA of millions of environmental samples that drug companies have collected and stored over several decades. Warp Drive is, in effect, searching for genetic parts that nature has already programmed to make particularly potent, useful chemicals. Church's technology will be used to generate copies of those parts, incorporate them into bacteria, and optimize their performance. Then the bacteria can be used to produce chemicals that, if all goes according to plan, have new and interesting therapeutic properties. 

Warp Drive, which was launched in January, employs fewer than a dozen full-time staffers and occupies only about 1,000 square feet of office and lab space in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the startup, which has raised $125 million in investments, has already formed a strategic partnership with the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi. If Warp Drive Bio meets certain milestones, it has the option to demand that Sanofi purchase the company for $1 billion or more. The deal was struck after Warp Drive's principal founder, Harvard biochemist Gregory Verdine, was invited to Paris last May and gave a two-hour presentation that had Sanofi's head of research, Elias Zerhouni, and several other staffers crowding around his laptop. 

Zerhouni, a former head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, immediately grasped the novelty and potential of Warp Drive's idea for sifting through nature's existing stockpile of DNA parts. "We've been plagued by a lack of creativity," he says. "It made sense to give them the resources they need." 

Verdine's insight is that nature is particularly adept at creating chemicals that act safely and precisely on a desired biological target. He says that half the small-molecule drugs developed over the last 30 to 35 years have been natural products or derivatives of such products. "It struck me that probably something useful in evolution helped tailor properties in these compounds that made them better suited to work in complex cell systems like the human body," he says. "Nature seemed to have already engineered in complexities that drug chemists don't understand." 

I interviewed Verdine in a spare room, no bigger than a walk-in closet, just outside Warp Drive's lab in a converted book factory in Cambridge. If Church and Collins are intent on creating new synthetic parts and bioengineering techniques, Verdine is hoping to use many of the same techniques to unwrap the mysteries of how nature does it. Over the decades, he explained to me, pharmaceutical researchers have collected and stored tens of thousands, and more likely millions, of environmental samples, including dirt and pond scum. The idea was to discover some potent chemical in these mixtures by dripping extracts onto cancer cells or into petri dishes of bacteria. But that process is laborious and subject to chance. Most drug companies have scaled back such research. 

The answer, Verdine decided, was to search for DNA instead. Given the plummeting cost of DNA sequencing, it's now feasible to simply decode all the genetic material present in, say, a drop of pond water teeming with microörganisms. Verdine says many of the natural drugs that have already been identified have similar DNA signatures—clusters of genes that often occur together in a microbe's genome. The trick, he adds, is to scan the samples' DNA to locate familiar-looking clusters that might be recipes for synthesizing a natural product—ideally, an important one that hasn't been found before. 

Once identified, the DNA sequences will need to be engineered into a bacterium so that the company can produce the chemical and study the potential drugs. This is where the synthetic-biology techniques developed by Church will be crucial: in transforming the code into actual compounds. "We use genomics and informatics to find a gene cluster. But that's an information unit," Verdine says. "We have to get the molecule. Synthetic biology involves coaxing the cluster into biosynthetic factories, which then produce the molecules. If we don't have the molecule, the cluster is useless." 

The idea of resorting to nature's stockpile for parts, Church says, is "ironic and interesting" given synthetic biology's interest in producing entirely new DNA circuits and, ultimately, generating entire organisms from scratch. Researchers today may alter, copy, and paste DNA with increasing ease, but they still struggle when it comes to actually composing DNA that does anything useful. They are still editing nature's code and learning from it. It turns out that for now, nature is still the best programmer.

Technology :: 5 Hidden Dangers of Cloud Computing

Cloud computing gets a lot of hype, so some may not consider the hidden costs associated with a move to the cloud. There are five hidden dangers associated with cloud technology that IT managers should consider, according to a white paper released by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA).

The paper, which offers a detailed analysis of potential benefits and costs associated with the technology, suggests not buying into the hype before looking at the hidden costs and making a detailed economic plan first. “Users who have been in IT for a long time know that, no matter what new innovation comes along, the challenges of managing IT (e.g., security, cost, complexity) never go away — they just take on new (and sometimes dangerous) forms,” the paper reads.

The five hidden dangers of cloud computing are:
  • the cost of being forced off the cloud due to a regulatory change such as stricter data privacy laws;
  • the cost of implementing and operating countermeasures to mitigate risk;
  • unexpected expenses involved in initial migration of systems;
  • loss of internal IT knowledge; and
  • lock-in with a specific cloud provider or proprietary service model, which may slow down future adoption of open standards-based services.

“Before deciding which cloud model to adopt, the enterprise must baseline the current cost to run the existing infrastructure or single system,” the paper reads. “This step is essential in deciding if cloud computing is suitable for the business and to calculate the economic and strategic return of the investment.”

Technology :: Grammar Rules are Hard. Visual Grammar is Easy.

Communicating clearly is difficult enough. In business, whether you are communicating orally or in writing, the proper use of grammar is critical. But who made up these rules and why are they so complicated? There are so many questions to ask, such as the ones below.

    Should I use a predicative or attributive adjective?
    What is subjunctive mood?
    Did I just split the heck out of that infinitive?

The rules may be difficult to remember and use, but think where we would be if they didn't exist. Grammatical rules help us to communicate with others and understand what they are communicating in return.

When grammar breaks down, so does communication. Confusion and ambiguity can lead to misunderstanding or misinterpretation. In an effort to clarify words—written or spoken—we often rely on visuals.
What can I say? I was an English major. Cartoon

"What can I say? I was an English major."
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As the old adage goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words." The right business visual, created in a way that is easy to understand, is worth a great deal more than that.

The problem is that, until recently, there wasn't a set of rules for visual communication. As a result, visuals can be just as confusing as poorly constructed sentences. Look at the flowchart below. The multiple directions of arrows and various sizes and colors of boxes make the author's message very difficult to understand.

To solve this problem, SmartDraw developed Visual Grammar—a set of simple rules that ensures effective visual communication. Just as a word processor automatically applies proper formatting to text documents, SmartDraw automatically applies Visual Grammar rules to every visual.

 Why Visual Grammar?

Communication, whether written or visual, is much more efficient with a set of rules we all follow than it would be if everyone made up their own.

Unlike English grammar, Visual Grammar isn't complicated. It is based on two simple rules:

    The Consistency Rule. This rule says that the appearance of equivalent shapes, lines and text in a visual should be consistent (i.e. the same).
    The One-Page Rule. This rule states that the visual must fit on one page and the text must remain readable.

Visuals are a powerful tool. They are proven to be up to six times more effective than communicating with words alone. But they must communicate the message clearly.

Let's revise the flowchart from above. The one below was created in just a few clicks using SmartDraw and the rules of Visual Grammar.

Notice how the use of Visual Grammar makes this flowchart easy to understand. It is visually consistent and it fits on one page. It's easy to follow the process in this chart. It flows from left to right, the same way you read a document. Split-paths allow for decisions to be made and the process carried on from there, until the order is shipped to the customer in the final step.

Using Visual Grammar with Ease

The templates in SmartDraw are designed to follow the basic rules of Visual Grammar. This allows you to quickly and effortlessly create visuals that communicate effectively. You and your organization will immediately realize the benefits:

    Visuals are consistently formatted, no matter who creates them.
    Attention is focused on the message - not the formatting.
    Productivity improves because the potential for miscommunication is reduced.

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Studies show that communicating visually is up to six times more effective than communicating with words alone. Let SmartDraw help you tap into the power of visual communication.

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Aug 16, 2012

Technology :: The Great German Energy Experiment

Germany has decided to pursue ambitious greenhouse-gas reductions—while closing down its nuclear plants. Can a heavily industrialized country power its economy with wind turbines and solar panels?

Along a rural road in the western German state of North Rhine–Westphalia lives a farmer named Norbert Leurs. An affable 36-year-old with callused hands, he has two young children and until recently pursued an unremarkable line of work: raising potatoes and pigs. But his newest businesses point to an extraordinary shift in the energy policies of Europe's largest economy. In 2003, a small wind company erected a 70-meter turbine, one of some 22,000 in hundreds of wind farms dotting the German countryside, on a piece of Leurs's potato patch. Leurs gets a 6 percent cut of the electricity sales, which comes to about $9,500 a year. He's considering adding two or three more turbines, each twice as tall as the first. 

The profits from those turbines are modest next to what he stands to make on solar panels. In 2005 Leurs learned that the government was requiring the local utility to pay high prices for rooftop solar power. He took out loans, and in stages over the next seven years, he covered his piggery, barn, and house with solar panels—never mind that the skies are often gray and his roofs aren't all optimally oriented. From the resulting 690-kilowatt installation he now collects $280,000 a year, and he expects over $2 million in profits after he pays off his loans.
Stories like Leurs's help explain how Germany was able to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2011, up from 6 percent in 2000. Germany has guaranteed high prices for wind, solar, biomass, and hydroelectric power, tacking the costs onto electric bills. And players like Leurs and the small power company that built his turbine have installed off-the-shelf technology and locked in profits. For them, it has been remarkably easy being green. 

What's coming next won't be so easy. In 2010, the German government declared that it would undertake what has popularly come to be called an Energiewende—an energy turn, or energy revolution. This switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the most ambitious ever attempted by a heavily industrialized country: it aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by midcentury. The goal was challenging, but it was made somewhat easier by the fact that Germany already generated more than 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, which produces almost no greenhouse gases. Then last year, responding to public concern over the post-tsunami nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the eight oldest German nuclear plants shut down right away. A few months later, the government finalized a plan to shut the remaining nine by 2022. Now the Energiewende includes a turn away from Germany's biggest source of low-­carbon electricity. 

Germany has set itself up for a grand experiment that could have repercussions for all of Europe, which depends heavily on German economic strength. The country must build and use renewable energy technologies at unprecedented scales, at enormous but uncertain cost, while reducing energy use. And it must pull it all off without undercutting industry, which relies on reasonably priced, reliable power. "In a sense, the Energiewende is a political statement without a technical solution," says Stephan Reimelt, CEO of GE Energy Germany. "Germany is forcing itself toward innovation. What this generates is a large industrial laboratory at a size which has never been done before. We will have to try a lot of different technologies to get there." 

The major players in the German energy industry are pursuing several strategies at once. To help replace nuclear power, they are racing to install huge wind farms far off the German coast in the North Sea; new transmission infrastructure is being planned to get the power to Germany's industrial regions. At the same time, companies such as Siemens, GE, and RWE, Germany's biggest power producer, are looking for ways to keep factories humming during lulls in wind and solar power. They are searching for cheap, large-scale forms of power storage and hoping that computers can intelligently coördinate what could be millions of distributed power sources. 

Estimates of what the transition will cost vary widely, depending in part on how fast new technology can be introduced and its price lowered. Various economic think tanks predict that the country will spend somewhere between $125 billion and $250 billion on infrastructure expansion and subsidies in the next eight years—between 3.5 and 7 percent of Germany's 2011 GDP. The long-term costs, including the expense of decommissioning nuclear power plants, will be far higher. 

Germany has already incurred significant costs. Each monthly electric bill carries a renewable-energy surcharge of about 15 percent (heavy industry is exempt). Wholesale electricity prices have jumped approximately 10 percent since the eight nuclear plants were shut. The German grid is strained as never before. And—ironically, given the Energiewende's goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions—the decision to close the nuclear plants has increased reliance on coal-fired power plants. 

Despite the costs, Germany could greatly benefit from its grand experiment. In the past decade, the country has nurtured not only wind and solar power but less-­heralded energy technologies such as management software and efficient industrial processes. Taken together, these "green" technologies have created an export industry that's worth $12 billion—and is poised for still more growth, according to Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Berlin Free University. Government policies could provide further incentives to develop and deploy new technologies. "That is know-how that you can sell," Schreurs says. "The way for Germany to compete in the long run is to become the most energy-efficient and resource-efficient market, and to expand on an export market in the process." 

If Germany succeeds in making the transition, it could provide a workable blueprint for other industrial nations, many of which are also likely to face pressures to transform their energy consumption. "This Energiewende is being watched very closely. If it works in Germany, it will be a template for other countries," says Graham Weale, chief economist at RWE, which is grappling with how to shut its nuclear power plants while keeping the lights on. "If it doesn't, it will be very damaging to the German economy and that of Europe." 

Choke Points
In the city of Erlangen, 20 kilometers north of Nuremberg, tight security greets visitors to the complex of industrial buildings that house the labs and factories of the energy giant Siemens, one of several contractors contributing to the Energiewende. One of these buildings literally hums with power—30 megawatts' worth. Inside is a giant steel and copper machine that converts AC power to DC at a massive scale; it's destined for installation on offshore platforms that must withstand harsh North Sea storms for decades. 

Germany needs this technology because it's looking for the steadiest source of wind it can find, and that's found far offshore—so far that the standard AC lines for transmitting power won't work. To date, Germany has installed only about 500 megawatts of offshore wind power, all within 90 kilometers of land, in water less than 40 meters deep. Now energy companies are planning to install 10,000 megawatts of wind power as far offshore as 160 kilometers, at depths of up to 70 meters. Several 10,000- to 20,000-ton offshore substations will convert gigawatts of AC output to DC, which can span such distances without large energy losses.
 "There is nowhere in the world where this has been done—building offshore grids and offshore connections in this way and in this amount," says Lex Hartman, director of corporate development at Tennet, the Dutch grid company in charge of parts of Germany's megascale North Sea effort. 

Of course, all this just gets the power to the beach. The electricity needs to traverse Germany to reach the major industrial centers in the country's south. Some 3,800 kilometers of new power lines are needed, but only around 200 have been built, with reluctant landowners and regional politicians stalling progress and creating choke points. The delays and the novel technologies make the German offshore wind program a huge gamble all by itself. "Nobody really knows what the Energiewende will cost," says Karen Pittel, an energy economist at the University of Munich. "But especially those wind farms—they are more or less pilot projects." 

The uncertainties don't stop there. Even with current levels of wind power, on windy days grid operators must shut turbines down because there's nowhere to put the power. When a cloud bank rolls over southern Germany on an otherwise sunny day, the output of the region's many photovoltaic panels can drop by hundreds of megawatts; the effect is like hitting the off switch on a moderate-size coal-fired power plant, increasing the threat of blackouts. 

Without enough cheap, reliable power to support the high-technology industry and the transportation system, Germany's economy—and that of Europe as a whole—could be in trouble. Already some German firms are building new manufacturing facilities elsewhere; for example, last year the chemical producer Wacker ­Chemie decided to build a polysilicon plant in Tennessee, partly because energy costs in Germany were so high. Weale says, "The quality of the supply would only have to deteriorate a little bit and it would be quite serious for this high-­technology industry. We've already seen, even without the lights going out, that industry is getting nervous." 

To avoid catastrophe, Germany will have to start deploying storage technologies and load-­balancing strategies at far larger scales. The country today has 31 pumped-storage power plants, which force water into uphill reservoirs at night and then use the downhill flow to spin turbines to generate power. Altogether, they can store 38 gigawatt-hours' worth of electricity. That might sound like a lot, but it's less than 90 minutes of peak output from Germany's wind farms.

Batteries might help, but so far costs are too high for them to play more than a niche role. In another building in Erlangen, Siemens is building tractor-trailer-size batteries based on three different lithium-ion technologies. Each could power 40 German houses for a day, but the batteries are too expensive to use for backup power. Instead, high-tech manufacturers are likely to use them to ride out brownouts with, say, a 15-minute, eight-megawatt jolt so that specialized equipment won't need costly restart procedures. Prices would need to fall by at least half before lithium-ion batteries could provide an economical way to store hours of excess power from wind turbines. 

Other storage technologies are being developed but are still probably years from being practical, if they ever will be. One new technology at Siemens, for example, produces hydrogen by using surplus electricity to split water molecules. But it is experimental and, at this stage, expensive. 

Inevitably, some hot July week will come when a high-pressure system stalls over Europe, stilling turbines just when sunburned Germans reach for their air conditioners. Until large-scale, cheap storage is available, gas power plants, which can start up quickly and efficiently, will be the most practical way to cope with these situations. But there's little incentive to build such plants. Owners of gas plants meant to meet peak power needs can no longer count on running for a certain number of hours, since the need will no longer fall on predictable workday afternoons but come and go with the sun and wind.

Says ­Ottmar ­Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, "The design of the electricity market will change fundamentally. You have fluctuating demand, and at the same time a fluctuating supply. The linkage and the interplay in these two dimensions has become the subject of intense research. There could be new and emerging market failures." 

Virtual Power
Duisburg is a gritty town just west of Essen, a major World War II munitions manufacturing center that was reduced to rubble by Allied bombing. This is where RWE, one of Germany's four major utilities, is working at the frontier of another crucial technology: virtual power plants, in which software intelligently controls vast numbers of small power sources (and, eventually, distributed storage sites) to coördinate their output for sale on energy markets. The goal is to transform thousands of renewable energy sources, each of which alone is unreliable, into a vast network that utilities can depend on. It's a dazzling concept, but one in its infancy. 

Inside a lab that sits in front of a Nazi-built bomb shelter shaped like a pointed witch's hat, RWE researchers are testing a dozen gas-fired boilers and fuel cells designed to generate both heat and electricity. In theory, utilities could call on hundreds of thousands of home units—and larger ones powering apartment or office buildings—to generate extra electricity for the grid in a pinch. As much as 5 percent of Germany's electricity could be produced this way—about the amount utilities expect to draw from the new offshore wind farms.
Reaching that point could take decades as homeowners and businesses gradually replace their existing boilers and the infrastructure is put in place to synchronize hundreds of thousands of power sources. But an hour east of Duisburg, in a 1960s-era office building on the edge of Dortmund, engineers are testing a more modest network as a starting point. A basement server room functions as a communications hub for 120 small generating stations that together produce 160 megawatts of electricity from renewable sources—mostly wind but also biomass and solar. Software takes weather predictions into account and assembles a block of renewable electricity from wind and solar, switching the biogas plants on and off as needed to balance the fluctuating output and create a block of stable power. 

Early projects like this one are stepping-stones toward more sophisticated systems that include demand management: utilities would compensate customers for agreeing to have their power consumption automatically curtailed during times of peak demand. Someday the systems could also draw power from the batteries of parked electric cars, or store excess power in them, to compensate for shifts in the wind. 

GE and other companies are pursuing such concepts, too. "Today what we know is that the energy market will be decentralized; it will be a fragmented market," says Reimelt, of GE. "Before, we had four utility companies. Today we have 350 companies generating power, going up to a thousand, and going up to a million if you count everyone with a solar panel on the roof. So one of the trends that we see is that there must be less emphasis on power generation and more on power management." 

Baffled in Bavaria
The floor-to-ceiling windows behind the desk of Wolfgang Mayer, the burgermeister of the small Bavarian town of Gundremmingen, provide a commanding view. A mile away stand the twin cooling towers of the Gundremmingen Nuclear Power Station Units B and C, which together are the largest source of nuclear power in Germany. Nicely situated halfway between the industrial centers of Stuttgart and Munich, the plant has the capacity to produce 2.6 gigawatts of power. Mayer is confounded by the Energiewende, which threatens hundreds of jobs in town and could hurt tax revenues. "They say 2017 to shut down Unit B, and 2021 for Unit C," he says, motioning toward the plant. "But they were the same time starting up in 1989! A normal person cannot understand. What is the logic?" 

Mayer is not alone in his bafflement. There is much about the current policy that arguably isn't logical. In the short term at least, the decision to close the nuclear plants means that the Energiewende will actually push utilities to rely more heavily on coal. Last year, for example, RWE fired up two long-planned new boilers at an existing facility near the Belgian border that burns the dirtiest fossil fuel of them all: brown lignite coal. Though these boilers are cleaner than the ones they're replacing, the coal plant is the largest of its kind in the world, and it's going full blast these days to keep up with power demand. 

"If you close eight nuclear plants, which were carbon-free, overnight, you will increase carbon emissions," Weale says. "One will have to be more reliant on coal than was previously expected. It may be hard to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as one would like." Decisions made now about what kinds of power plants to install will have repercussions for decades, he says: "You can't make sudden changes from one asset to another." 

A second problem is that even when it comes to alternative energy sources, Germany doesn't reward carbon dioxide reduction. Rather, its policy establishes well-defined subsidies for specific technologies: a kilowatt-hour of solar power is rewarded more than power from offshore wind, which in turn earns more than power from onshore wind. Even though solar subsidies have been reduced to rates far lower than the ones Leurs locked in, solar power still pays the highest rates. If reducing emissions were the focus, however, more money would be directed toward reducing energy use. "If you could choose the optimal instruments, focusing on those areas first where you can achieve your goals most inexpensively, you would focus not so much on renewables but much more on efficiency," says Pittel, the energy economist from Munich. 

The current subsidies also don't encourage innovation as much as they make existing technologies profitable. There's little incentive to, say, develop radically new photovoltaic technologies, even though these might ultimately be the only way to make unsubsidized solar power cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels. 

To some German economists, the country's energy policy is simply wrong-headed. 
Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, is especially scathing. "The Energiewende is a turn into nowhere-land, because the green technologies are just not sufficient to provide a replacement for modern society's energy needs," he says. "It is wrong to shut down the atomic power plants, because this is a cheap source of energy, and wind and solar power are by no means able to provide a replacement. They are much more expensive, and the energy that comes out is of inferior quality. Energy-intensive industries will move out, and the competitiveness of the German manufacturing sector will be reduced or wages will be depressed." 

German politicians, of course, are betting that Sinn is wrong. And plenty of encouraging signs argue against his pessimism. The cost of solar panels has dropped sharply, which means that solar power may become more competitive. Battery costs may follow suit. If fossil fuels continue to become more expensive, renewable power sources will look more attractive. "Forty years is a long time, and one is continuously being surprised by favorable technological developments—for example, the way in which the price of solar cells is coming down," Weale says. "From my point of view, I want to emphasize how challenging the Energiewende is. At the moment, it's looking difficult. But with the right incentives, one can have good reason to believe that technological progress will be a lot faster than we currently expect."

Technology :; Geothermal Power Needs Inventions to Thrive

Advanced geological mapping and subsurface drilling tools must still be developed in order for geothermal power to become a more prominent source of renewable energy, experts said at the National Geothermal Summit. 

In a breakout session at the summit on Wednesday, Aug. 8, a panel of government and private-sector geothermal experts discussed the value that additional 3-D modeling, geophysical surveys to indicate hot water flow below ground, and other research and development work could have on the future of geothermal exploration. 

James Faulds, director of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, said that like oil and gas deposits, about two-thirds of the geothermal energy sources remain hidden, with no surface expression. Advanced technologies for fossil fuels has been developed, but similar advancements for geothermal have lagged behind.
In addition, Faulds added that often you’ll have a geothermal well in production, but then another site just a few hundred feet away may be hot, but dry. Those risks are a major impediment for developing geothermal systems.

“We need a better understanding why certain wells are productive and why others are not,” Faulds said. “Fundamentally we need better conceptual models of these geothermal systems to figure out where to drill and reduce the risk.”

“Some of this can be funded by industry, but some of the broader studies probably need to be funded by government entities,” Faulds added.

The U.S. Department of Energy was represented by Hildigunnur Thorsteinsson, team lead of the U.S. DOE Hydrothermal and Resource Confirmation. She agreed with Faulds that in comparison with oil and gas production, there’s a lack of high-performance tools and temperature devices for geothermal exploration.

Thorsteinsson pointed out that there are a variety of technical pathways to overcome, organized by the DOE into categories like advancements in non-invasive geophysics, invasive geophysics, geology and structure, remote sensing, geo-chemistry and cross-cutting, seismic gravity tools.

Joe Iovenitti, vice president of resource for Alta Rock Energy Inc., added that short-term goals should be established to find ways to lower the cost of drilling and to establish further techniques for boreholes and wells. 

In the long term, Iovenitti believed geothermal exploration would be dependent on data integration. He suggested the government purchase private data sets related to geoscience and make that data available to companies that are interested in geothermal pursuits. Iovenitti said that would help correlate where to drill and what drilling applications will work in a certain area. 

“There’s definitely a technological challenge here that we can address,” Thorsteinsson said regarding the U.S. government’s ability to help companies interested in geothermal drilling. “And it’s an opportunity for the department to put up funding opportunities and make some progress.”
Thorsteinsson revealed that the U.S. DOE is pushing forward with funding projects. She said there are more than 30 federal R&D efforts under way. One in particular deals with percussive and encapsulated drilling techniques that have particles in the drilling buds that make tiny explosions down in a hole to help break up rock.
Those projects that meet technical milestones will receive funding for a second phase starting in 2013, Thorsteinsson added.

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