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TiVo-like software draws ire of XM Radio

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Time Trax, a program designed to record XM radio programming directly to a PC’s hard drive, has drawn the attention of XM Radio and the RIAA — and not in a good way. Frustrated by his inability to listen to all the broadcasts he wanted to, Ontario programmer Scott MacLean wrote and began selling Time Trax. The application creates an analog recording of songs broadcast over XM along with track information which is then stored as an MP3 file. It will only work with the XM PCR receiver, as the auto and home stereo receivers lack a PC interface.HangZhou Night Net

Predictably, the RIAA and XM Radio are not amused, and are looking deeper into the legality of the software:

A spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America said his organization had not reviewed the software, but said that in principle it was disturbed by the idea. “We remain concerned about any devices or software that permit listeners to transform a broadcast into a music library,” RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy said.

Yes, heaven forbid that a paying customer should be able to save broadcasts for his own personal use. Both XM Radio and the RIAA are looking closely at MacLean’s creation to see if it violates either the XM user agreement or copyright laws, apparently fearing that saved broadcasts could wind up on P2P networks. XM also has plans for a new version of its receiver with pause and rewind functionality, which is not as compelling when there is software that provides the same functionality.

Look for the lawyering to start soon, as XM considers it an “unauthorized” product. It’s a shame… not just because it’s a cool program, but because XM is displaying the typical knee-jerk reaction that media companies have when customers decided they want to use their products in a way the manufacturers did not intend. Too bad XM is choosing to see Time Trax as a potential legal battle rather than an sales opportunity.

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Lawsuit filed over CD antipiracy tech

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Big Five record label EMI is being sued in France over copy protection tech used in many music CDs. A French consumer group, UFC-Que Choisir has filed suit, alleging "deception over the material qualities of a product" since the CDs will not play in some home CD players, car stereos, and PC CD/DVD drives. In addition, the group is upset that the technology used by EMI prohibits consumers from making copies of the music for personal use.HangZhou Night Net

Julien Dourgnon, deputy director of the consumer group, said the ability to make copies for private use – for example by transferring music to a portable MP3 player – was important to many record buyers. "We’re defending that freedom, we’re not defending piracy," he said.

EMI and a retailer also named in the suit responded by pointing out that they inform consumers that the copy-protected CDs could cause problems in some situations and give full refunds to customers unhappy with the CDs. While the potential fines are not steep, any finding against the label could result in their being ordered to take the copy-protected CDs off the market.

It is an odd strategy the record companies have chosen ? irritating their customers by selling them a product that does not work as expected. While the CDs may be clearly labeled, the labels are in effect trying to change nearly 20 years of ingrained behavior: buy a CD, take it home, put it in the stereo, and listen to it. Obviously, if the customers don’t mind putting up with the problems inherent in copy-protected CDs (witness the success of Velvet Revolver’s release, which became the first album with copy protection to hit #1 in the US), then the labels will have no incentive to change their practices.

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Toyota reports a silicon carbide breakthrough

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Move over silicon chips, there is a new semiconductor king on the horizon. Silicon carbide’s (SiC) potential has been known since the 1950’s, but the properties that make is attractive also make it hard to work with. The material is a good semiconductor, extremely resistant to heat, and hard. So hard in fact, researchers had trouble making large enough SiC crystals without defects. Now, researchers from Toyota Central Research and Development Laboratories report in Nature (registration required) they have used a Repeated A-Face method of physical vapor transport to create large SiC crystals with virtually no defects. HangZhou Night Net

Takatori grows the silicon carbide crystals in several different stages. At each stage, further growth is only allowed on the cleanest face of the crystal. Hot silicon carbide vapour condenses on the crystal’s flat face and defects are gradually eliminated as the crystals grow up to seven centimetres across. Takatori’s crystals contain less than 1% of the number of defects found in a crystal produced by conventional methods.

What advantages would SiC have over traditional silicon based semiconductors? SiC has a higher energy efficiency, can handle high frequency electrical pulses and is tolerant to extreme temperatures. Previous research has shown SiC devices can operate at temperatures as high as 650C (1,202F) without the need for cooling. Kiss that noisy heat sink/fan combo goodbye! SiC’s properties could open up uses for electronic controllers inside jet engines and provide hardened circuitry for spacecraft.

Silicon is safe for now. The researchers have only been able to make pure SiC wafers up to 3 inches in diameter and improvements in the SiC deposition technique are needed to increase wafer size and lower production costs. SiC could see its first use in specialized circuitry that needs high heat tolerance, but mainstream commercial usage could be over 6 years away. The BBC also has coverage of the discovery here.

Tux takes a bow: Linux makes presence known at CES

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The open source Linux operating system is arguably a major force in the mobile and embedded space and can be found on a growing number of popular devices ranging from the TiVo to Amazon’s Kindle. It’s not surprising that the proverbial penguin has a strong presence at CES this week, where gadget makers from around the world are unveiling their latest and greatest toys.

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Touchscreen devices are the new hotness this year and are arriving with Linux in a number of different form factors and configurations. There are some new touchscreen Internet dashboards for the home, including ICD’s 15-inch Vega, an Android-based tablet with NVIDIA’s Tegra SoC. Another compelling product in this category is the Sony Dash, a 7-inch touchscreen device that that runs Chumby’s Linux platform and doubles as an alarm clock.

Dell lifted the curtain on its mysterious slate computer, a five-inch touchscreen device that comes with an Android-based software platform and will reportedly function as a phone. Dell also announced that its more conventional Android smartphones—previously only available in China—are coming to the United States. Dell is among several companies that AT&T has identified as its Android hardware partners.

Linux is still a strong player in the little laptop market. MSI has announced that Novell’s new mashup of Moblin and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop will be available as an option on the upcoming 10-inch MSI U135 netbook. Smartbooks have finally arrived and are making a big splash at CES. HP has an Android-based smartbook with a 10-inch resistive touchscreen, and Lenovo announced its slim Skylight with a Web-oriented Linux OS. Both products ship with the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon ARM processor.

One of the most intriguing products that has emerged so far from CES is Lenovo’s IdeaPad U1 Hybrid, a laptop with an 11-inch touchscreen display that detaches and can be used as a standalone tablet device. The laptop runs Windows and is powered by an Intel chip, but the tablet part runs Linux and is powered by a Snapdragon.

FCC’s underwhelming-looking broadband plan also tardy

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Time to reset the game clock on the National Broadband Plan.

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The plan, due to be presented to Congress next month, now looks to be delayed by a month. Like a tardy student going to a professor, the FCC has written Congress to ask for a four-week extension on its “big paper.” Perhaps the agency can use the extra time to ensure the plan contains some of that “change” we’ve heard so much about.

Filling gaps

In December, we were given a sneak peak at the plan-in-progress. While interesting, it was also underwhelming.

Broadband plans in other countries have done things like aim for 1Gbps connections by 2015 (Japan), separate last-mile copper and fiber networks from backend networks and open them to all competitors (UK), and even build an open access national fiber network (Australia). The US, in contrast, looks ready to find and auction off some extra wireless spectrum in five years or so; it might also require rural telcos taking universal service money to provide low-speed broadband to all their lines. Oh, and some people might get Internet access on their TV sets.

The policies we’ve seen so far look good, and the FCC has had an impressive team working on the issue for nearly a year now, but the final result looks a lot like “tinkering around the edges” rather than doing something truly game-changing. The FCC commissioned a major report from Harvard researchers on world broadband markets, and that report made essentially one recommendation: mandate line-sharing rules to provide real competition. But it’s not in the plan.

The Department of Commerce also weighed in this week, telling the FCC that US broadband was generally a duopoly, that wireless really wouldn’t be a replacement for wireline networks, and that providing more spectrum wouldn’t fix the competitive situation.

Everyone’s calling for bold action on broadband, even Republicans like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). In an op-ed this week, Hutchison demanded a “daring, comprehensive” plan. What was her main idea for such a plan? Additional wireless spectrum.

The FCC continues to insist it will deliver something solid. “Gaps” in US broadband access will be addressed “boldly,” said FCC Chair Julius Genachowski this week. Extending coverage to all is a good thing. Opening up spectrum, especially to unlicensed use (which brought us WiFi and now White Space Devices) is a good thing. But nothing coming from the FCC looks likely to push US ISPs to be truly awesome on the world stage (see our piece on incredible ISPs around the world, and take a look at the service they are already providing before you say it can’t be done here).

ISPs like France’s Free.fr already offer ADSL connections of up to 28Mbps that provide TV, Internet, and phone service for �29.99, showing just how much can really be done by the right kind of competition. Meanwhile, Americans can pay $35/month for 6Mbps Internet-only DSL connections with customer service like this.

The FCC’s point man for broadband, Blair Levin, has essentially ruled out line-sharing already, and he’s also right that just “thinking big” without having a plan to get there is ineffective. And yes, some of the high speeds advertised in other countries can’t be obtained in reality. But a look round the world shows that broadband can at least be done better, it can certainly be done cheaper, and success is often a function of the regulatory environment. That doesn’t mean government-run broadband; it just means that the ground rules truly encourage competition, the sort of competition that both the Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice don’t currently see in the market.

We’ll reserve final judgment on the FCC’s efforts until March, when the National Broadband Plan is revealed in its full splendor. But we’re skeptical that a few more weeks will lead the agency to think any bigger. When JFK announced that the US would race for the moon, he said we would pursue moon landings “not only because they are easy, but because they are hard.” When it comes to broadband, it looks like we’ll be doing a host of good—but pretty easy—things.

France considering “Google tax” to support dying media

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Companies that leverage the Internet to advertise to citizens should help support industries that are suffering thanks to the Internet, according to some in France. The French government is considering a tax on companies that advertise online as a way to prop up creative industries that are having trouble keeping up with the digital world, such as musicians and publishers. Unsurprisingly, the proposal has drawn criticism from those who believe governments should not be in the business of punishing Internet success and instead embrace the new things it has to offer.

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The report was commissioned by France’s culture ministry and written by record producer Patrick Zelnik. In it, Zelnik argued that big companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, and Microsoft should together be taxed up to �20 million per year (about US$29 million), even if their offices were not based in France. This, he said, was in order to end “the endless enrichment without payback”—essentially, these companies shouldn’t be able to make a buck off the clicks of French citizens without giving back to the French creative community.

This was only part of the 69-page proposal, however; other parts of the report discussed offering a public subsidy for citizens to buy music online, the creation of a licensing entity to ensure artists get paid for online music sales, and increased spending on the digitization of books. It also suggested taxing ISPs based on traffic—that plus the “Google Tax” would add up to a total of �50 million (or about US$72 million) in the first year.

Google, of course, did not quite agree with the reasoning behind the proposed tax. Google France’s Director of Public Affairs Oliver Esper told Ars that the company submitted a response to the report that emphasized the importance of Internet companies and cultural industries working together instead of in opposition. “We hope that, among the recommendations contained in this report, the ones encouraging cooperation will be taken forward, such as proposals to simplify and adapt licensing mechanisms to the digital environment,” Esper said. “There is the opportunity here to pursue innovative solutions, rather than encouraging a sense of opposition between the Internet and cultural industries, as the tax proposal does.”

French think tank Renaissance Num�rique had a much stronger reaction to the proposal, saying on its website that it was appalled by the “blatant disregard of the Internet and communication technologies.” The firm questioned why Internet advertisers are responsible for artists’ lost income, and strongly urged the government to take a more entrepreneurial approach to the Internet. “Let’s stop demonizing the Internet and look at the benefits of the web!” said Renaissance Num�rique co-president Christine Balagu� in a statement.

France’s government has not traditionally been known for being “Internet friendly”—it has long been under fire for its three-strikes laws that keep getting passed into legislature (but have yet to be enacted). And, this is not the first time France has tried to tax ISPs in order to fund public media. The “Google Tax” still has a ways to go before it becomes a law in France, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see the proposal gather momentum in the coming months.

Microsoft Patch Tuesday for January 2010: one bulletin

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According to the Microsoft Security Response Center, Microsoft will issue a single Security Bulletin on Tuesday, and it will host a webcast to address customer questions about the bulletins the following day (January 13 at 11:00am PST, if you’re interested). The vulnerability is rated “Critical” and it earned the rating through a remote code execution impact, meaning a hacker could potentially gain control of an infected machine. The single patch may require a restart.

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The list of affected operating systems includes Windows 2000, Windows XP (32-bit and 64-bit), Windows Server 2003 (32-bit and 64-bit), Windows Vista (32-bit and 64-bit), Windows Server 2008 (32-bit and 64-bit), Windows 7 (32-bit and 64-bit), and Windows Server 2008 R2 (32-bit and 64-bit). Microsoft noted that the vulnerability is critical only on Windows 2000, and it is low for all other platforms.

Microsoft will not be releasing any patches for Microsoft Office nor Internet Explorer this month. If you’re wondering, the SMB hole in Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, disclosed in November 2009 will not be addressed either. Microsoft says it is still working on an update for the issue and that it is not aware of any active attacks using the exploit code that was made public.

Along with these patches, Microsoft is also planning to release the following on Patch Tuesday

One or more nonsecurity, high-priority updates on Windows Update (WU) and Windows Server Update Services (WSUS)One or more nonsecurity, high-priority updates on Microsoft Update (MU) and WSUSAn updated version of the Microsoft Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool on Windows Update, Microsoft Update, Windows Server Update Services, and the Microsoft Download Center

This information is subject to change by Patch Tuesday; Microsoft has been known to rush patches as well as pull them if it deems it necessary.

Palm updates devices, opens App Catalog, boosts gaming

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Palm stole the show last year at CES when it revealed the Palm Pre and webOS, the company’s new flagship smartphone and Linux-based mobile software platform. It was a bold Hail Mary from a company that many industry observers thought was already out of the game. Palm’s press briefing this year was less daring, but still delivered some significant evolutionary advancements for the company’s mobile vision.

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Palm is boosting its hardware lineup, augmenting its software platform, and expanding its developer ecosystem. The biggest news is a pair of new devices—incremental updates of the company’s existing Pre and Pixi smartphones. The new handsets, called the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus, will be available later this month from Verizon. The Pre Plus got a minor facelift with a simplified design that ditches the front navigation button. It will also have more memory.

Palm has been working on webOS 1.4, a new version of the software platform that will introduce some significant new features, including support for recording, editing, and uploading video. It will be made available to users as an over-the-air update at some point in February. Palm also announced the availability of a Flash 10 beta plugin, which users will soon be able to download from the App Catalog.

Palm is taking some major steps to expand its third-party developer ecosystem and enable programmers to create more powerful and sophisticated software for the webOS platform. Applications for webOS are built almost entirely with standards-based Web technologies, including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Although this approach is highly conducive to rapid development and gives developers a considerable amount of control over the look and feel of their software, it implies some performance limitations.

In order to accommodate efficient execution of more computationally intensive workloads, Palm is introducing a new native plug-in development kit (PDK) that will allow developers to implement some parts of their application in C and C++. This is similar in principle to the NDK that Google released for Android last year. In addition to providing major performance advantages, it will also make it possible for Pre developers to reuse some of their existing C and C++ code.

The PDK will help to address one of the most glaring deficiencies of Palm’s third-party application offerings: the lack of games. A number of prominent game development studios are launching major titles for the Pre (but not the Pixi, unfortunately), including Sims 3 and Need for Speed with real 3D rendering. During the press briefing, EA vice president Travis Boatman says that Palm’s PDK made it possible to bring modern games to webOS without having to sacrifice the performance that users expect.

Palm is opening up its worldwide developer program to everyone, and will be accepting more software into the App Catalog. The company has also vowed to open up the App Catalog’s database of application metadata so that third-party websites can publish information about webOS software. This will make it possible to create custom webOS software indexes with social features and custom ranking capabilities.

The company has been working to lower the barriers to entry for development and distribution. It says that it will allow unrestricted distribution over the Internet outside of its own App Catalog. During the briefing, Palm also touted Ares, its impressive new Web-based development environment, which we looked at last month.

Palm is also expanding its carrier partnerships. Both AT&T and Verizon will carry Palm phones, with the latter getting the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus starting January 25. AT&T will start carrying Palm’s phone later on this year. The updated phones will also be able to run a new mobile hotspot app that will allow them to share a 3G data connection to up to five clients over WiFi.

Following Palm’s announcement of its plans for the PDK and developer program, we spoke with independent developer Ed Finkler, the creator of a popular open source Twitter application called Spaz. Finkler, who recently announced version 1.0 of Spaz for webOS, is one of several third-party developers who have participated in Palm’s developer program from the start.

“I think [Palm] are doing what they can to make webOS dev-friendly. It seems like they are addressing a lot of the issues they had, especially with more direct access to hardware,” he remarked. “They’ve really embraced the homebrew community, far more than any other major hardware provider I am aware of. That’s pretty awesome.”

Indeed, Palm marketing VP Katie Mitic took the opportunity to personally thank the homebrew community during her segment of Palm’s press briefing. It was a meaningful gesture that demonstrates Palm’s increasingly developer-savvy approach to community-building. It’s a much different attitude than the company exhibited when it got a bit of a rocky start with homebrew developers last year.

Finkler says that the company’s much-improved understanding of open source and community outreach is partly attributable to the efforts of Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith, well-known experts in the JavaScript community who departed from Mozilla last year to work on Palm’s developer relations team.

Although Palm didn’t announce anything radically new at CES, the company is clearly refining its strategy and working to build momentum around its platform. The PDK, which seems like a particularly compelling addition to the webOS development platform, is already bringing a lot of value to Palm’s customers thanks to the new video games. Palm is clearly still an agile contender in the smartphone arena.

768-bit RSA cracked, 1024-bit safe (for now)

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With the increasing computing power available to even casual users, the security-conscious have had to move on to increasingly robust encryption, lest they find their information vulnerable to brute-force attacks. The latest milestone to fall is 768-bit RSA; in a paper posted on a cryptography preprint server, academic researchers have now announced that they factored one of these keys in early December.

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Most modern cryptography relies on single large numbers that are the product of two primes. If you know the numbers, it’s relatively easy to encrypt and decrypt data; if you don’t, finding the numbers by brute force is a big computational challenge. But this challenge gets easier every year as processor speed and efficiency increase, making “secure” a bit of a moving target. The paper describes how the process was done with commodity hardware, albeit lots of it.

Their first step involved sieving, or identifying appropriate integers; that took the equivalent of 1,500 years on one core of a 2.2GHz Opteron; the results occupied about 5TB. Those were then uniqued and processed into a matrix; because of all the previous work, actually using the matrix to factor the RSA value only took a cluster less than half a day. Although most people aren’t going to have access to these sorts of clusters, they represent a trivial amount of computing power for many organizations. As a result, the authors conclude, “The overall effort is sufficiently low that even for short-term protection of data of little value, 768-bit RSA moduli can no longer be recommended.” 1024-bit values should be good for a few years still.

Given that these developments are somewhat inevitable, even the authors sound a bit bored by their report. “There is nothing new to be reported for the square root step, except for the resulting factorization of RSA-768” they write. “Nevertheless, and for the record, we present some of the details.” Still, they manage to have a little fun, in one place referencing a YouTube clip of a Tarantino film following their use of the term “bingo.”

Apple: pixels as touch sensors for brighter, thinner screens

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Touchscreens and multitouch technology make up a significant majority of Apple’s research into future user interface improvements, and the iPhone introduced some of those UI paradigm shifts into our increasingly mobile computing. Since almost all interaction with the iPhone—and presumably the hopefully imminent Apple tablet—involves a touchscreen, Apple hopes to improve on touchscreen technology by using each individual LCD pixel as a touch sensor.

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Apple has filed a patent application, published today, for a “display with dual-function capacitive elements.” By mixing display and sensing functions into each individual pixel, it would make touchscreens thinner, lighter, and brighter than they currently are today.

The way current touchscreens found on most smartphones work is by overlaying a touch-sensitive panel on top of a traditional LCD panel. The touch-sensitive panel is essentially a grid array of capacitors, most commonly made from the transparent conductor indium tin oxide (ITO). When your fingertip comes in contact with the small magnetic fields present in the capacitors, it causes the voltage along those capacitors to fluctuate. A processor translates these fluctuations into touch positions.

The need for additional layers covering the LCD screen means it is thicker, and despite the fact that ITO is transparent, the touch layer does block some light coming from the LCD display underneath. Apple’s solution involves using each individual pixel as a capacitive sensor, eliminating the need for an additional layer for a separate touch sensor.

Part of the magic of Apple’s patent relies on forming an IPS LCD display using a low temperature polycrystalline silicon instead of the more common amorphous silicon. Materials engineering nerds may want to look at the patent for a more detailed explanation, but suffice it to say that the poly-Si allows for a much faster switching frequency for driving the individual pixels. (For those unaware, the individual pixels in an LCD panel switch on and off at a rate much faster than we can perceive—it’s this same switching that can cause eye fatigue from staring at your screen all day.)

Apple’s idea takes advantage of the faster switching of poly-Si to drive the pixels one instant, and use the capacitive properties of the individual pixels as touch sensors the next. The switching happens fast enough to give a clear, bright display, as well as responsive touch sensing. The elimination of the separate touch-sensing layer also makes for a thinner, lighter, brighter, and simpler touchscreen unit.

Apple proposes its solution for mobile devices, making references to iPhones, iPods, and even MacBooks, but don’t be surprised if such an innovation also makes its way into an Apple tablet.

Digital albums, vinyl made a comeback in ’09 while CDs slide

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2009 was a decently strong year for music—as long as you look at digital online sales and ignore the sinking ship that represents physical CDs. The US numbers are in from Nielsen SoundScan, and they are mostly a less-extreme version of the 2008 numbers, due in no small part to the struggling US economy. Still, the sales of physical media was way down while online media was way up, though vinyl enthusiasts are still bent on keeping their little niche alive—and are largely succeeding at it.

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According to Nielsen’s numbers for 2009, overall music sales were up a very modest 2.1 percent over 2008—this is a far cry from the 10.5 percent growth between 2007 and 2008, but growth nonetheless. When you split the numbers out, though, they are much more telling: music lovers bought nearly 1.16 billion digital tracks in 2009 (up 8.3 percent from 2008), and 76.4 million online digital albums (up 16.1 percent).

Physical albums, on the other hand, did not fare so well. They decreased by an average of 17.4 percent year-over-year (down 20.7 percent for current albums and 14.1 percent for catalog albums):

Once again, a shocker from Nielsen’s 2009 numbers came in the form of vinyl sales, which were up 33 percent last year. (For comparison’s sake, however, vinyl sales grew by a whopping 89 percent between 2007 and 2008.) With 2.5 million vinyl units sold in 2009, Nielsen still said that more albums were sold than any other year in history(keeping in mind that SoundScan’s history only goes back to 1991, a few years after the advent of the CD). The firm attributed this growth to household names like The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Bob Dylan, but also said that indie artists were making a vinyl comeback. “Also notable is the fact that two out of every three vinyl albums were purchased at an independent music store,” Nielsen said.

Vinyl’s mysterious growth isn’t enough to offset the tank in other physical sales, however—33 times a very small number is still a very small number. When combining all physical media with all online media, album sales were still down by a sad 12.7 percent year over year.

Numerous artists have blamed online services like iTunes (and now Amazon MP3) for people’s changing tastes when it comes to cherry-picking songs, but 2009’s numbers make it clear that customers are willing to go the album route if they have motivation to do so. Singles are still king, but with digital albums up 16.1 percent (current digital albums are up 20 percent), the trend is looking better for artists looking to make more than just a buck at a time.

Time to ban mountaintop mining due to externalized costs

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A new, comprehensive analysis of mountaintop removal mining, which is commonin the Appalachian region of the United States,shows that its environmental effects extend to the hydrology of its surroundings, ruining streams and the ecosystems they support. Technically known as “mountaintop mining with valley fills” (MTM/VF), it consists of stripping away forests and topsoil from the tops of mountains and then using explosives to break through rocks that cover the coal inside the mountain. The resulting rocks are then pushed away into valleys, where they interfere with and often bury existing streams.

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It’s not all that surprising that clean water, and a lot of it, is important to ecosystems; research shows that if these activities disrupt as little as 5-10 percent of a watershed’s area, they can cause irreversible changes to the ecosystem. The reduced flow of streams that get buried by valley fills can kill off plants and trees in an area with high biodiversity. This loss of flora also results in a landscape that is less effective at handling runoff water, leading to an increase in the frequency and magnitude of downstream flooding.

Streams that continue to flow are polluted with various chemicals and metals from the mountaintop rocks. Increases in sulfate cause stream microbes to create more hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic to many aquatic plants and organisms. Selenium accumulation causes deformities and lethality in fish, which in turn poison the birds that eat them. Humans in the area are also affected by the dirty streams and the elevated levels of airborne, hazardous dust that results from mining. Studies have found elevated levels of hospitalization for pulmonary disorders and hypertension, as well as increased mortality in the region.

Reclamation of the areas appears to be ineffective, with soils still having low organic and nutrient content and little to no regrowth of woody vegetation afterward. Reclamation often involves rebuilding streams, but the new ones carry chemicals released by the rock debris, and don’t integrate into the radically altered environment.

The sum of these problems add significantly to the externalized costs of coal usefor power generation. Because of the huge impact, the scientists behind the report are recommending that the government stops issuing MTV/VF permits until new methods to address these problems can be developed and subjected to rigorous review.

Science, 2010. DOI: 10.1126/science.1180543

photo courtesy of Vivian Stockman

All I wheely want for Christmas: the Fanatec Porsche Turbo S

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“Christmas is a time when Ars people get toys. January is a time when they review them.” Thus tweeteth Deputy Editor Jon Stokes, and right he is. Under the tree this year (well, on the UPS truck) was a new steering wheel for my Xbox 360. Not just any wheel, but a (deep breath) Fanatec Porsche Turbo S steering wheel and Clubsport pedal setup, available directly from the manufacturer for the princely sum of $499.95. Yes, that’s a lot of money, but as we’ll see, you get quite a lot in return, and you could spend quite a lot less on the standard edition and still have what’s probably the best driving wheel peripheral on the market right now. Compared to the Microsoft Wireless Racing Wheel, the Porsche-licensed peripheral is a massive leap forward for Xbox gamers, and the ability to use the rig with a PS3 and the forthcoming Gran Turismo 5 should put it high on any racing nut’s wish list.

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Video games used to be simple. Your NES came with a rectangular joypad that was all you needed to steer Mario from one end of the screen to the other, down pipes, up vines—and you’d get a nice dose of sore thumbs as an added bonus. Soon, the four points of the compass weren’t enough, and neither were A and B alone. We got shoulder buttons, analog sticks, and a proliferation of buttons to twitch, mash, and press in order to get to the end of the level and trigger that little flush of dopamine that’s the gamers’ equivalent of one of those chicken-flavoured cat treats that I reward my pets with when they’ve been especially adorable.

The standard game controller might be fine for some folks, but thankfully for the gaming peripheral manufacturers of this world, lots of us demand more faithful ways of interacting with our virtual pastimes. Different genres obviously have their own peripherals, from arcade sticks to musical instruments to the reason I’m writing this and (hopefully) the reason you’re still reading: steering wheels for driving games.

For a while, Microsoft has had a fairly good steering wheel available for the Xbox 360, which is a good thing since almost no one else has been able to offer one. Microsoft chose to use a different standard for the 360, so wheels that work fine on PCs and PlayStations have been useless on Redmond’s console, much to the chagrin of Logitech wheel owners. Their G25 and more recent G27 wheels have been the gold standard for driving sim players, but there’s a new player in town called Fanatec, and if you’re looking for a wheel that will work with both Xbox 360 and PS3, look no further.

I first became aware of this German company in the middle of 2008. They were already offering PC wheels, helped along with a license from Porsche. The wheels were replicas of those found in Carreras or GT3s, but what got my wallet out back then was the answer to every couchlocked racer’s dreams, the RennSport wheel stand ($129.95). Named after Porsche’s legendary series of stripped-down road monsters, this is a folding wheel stand that comes with a wife acceptance factor that’s several orders of magnitude higher than anything you could build for yourself out of shipping palettes or MDF. But more about the wheel stand later. Back to the main event.

Word on the street was that Fanatec was releasing a wheel that would work with the Xbox 360. So what, you ask. Microsoft makes a pretty good wheel that works brilliantly with the 360. But couple that news with finding out that for the first time, a console racing game would support the use of a clutch pedal as well as an accelerator and brake, and now you have something interesting on your hands. Not only that, but a proper H-pattern gearbox like you’d find in your average car. The game of course is Forza Motorsport 3, already covered on these pages at launch, and a mighty fine game it is. But here we are, 500 words in, and still I’ve told you nothing about it. What a poor reviewer I am.

Off to the races

The Fanatec Porsche Turbo S Wheel, to give it it’s full name, comes in three flavors. The Pure edition (the cheapest version at $249.95, sans pedals or shifter set), the regular edition ($349.95), which comes with a three pedal set, a sequential shifter, and an H-pattern shifter, along with an RF dongle that looks like the key to a 911 and lets you use the wheel with a PC or PS3, and finally the Clubsport package (now sold out, unfortunately), which is all of the above, but instead of the base pedal set you get Fanatec’s hefty Clubsport pedals ($199.95 on their own), which wouldn’t look out of place in an actual track-going 911 GT3 RSR racecar.

These superduper pedals (which are available separately and will work with just about any other wheel in conjunction with a PC) use contactless sensors and are light years ahead of the plastic ones that come with the Microsoft wheel we know and love. The brake pedal comes with a pair of very nifty features: a load cell sensor that allows you to vary the amount of pressure needed to reach full activation (i.e. how hard you have to press it to get 100%) and in conjunction with the wheel, force feedback that pulses the pedal at the point that the wheels are locked up, in the same way your car’s ABS behaves (yes, it still does this when you race with ABS turned off, which is a good thing as we shall see).