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Week in review: Mother Nature on the hot seat

Global warming and the tech industry's environmental role were hot topics as scientists met to discuss the Earth, planets and space.

Global warming and the tech industry's environmental role were hot topics this week as scientists convened at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union to discuss the latest information about the state of Earth, planets and space.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, in a speech at the San Francisco conference Thursday, urged scientists to come forward and help communicate to the public about the dangers of climate change. He warned that climate change presents an unusual, and dire, set of circumstances, and getting the public to understand the problem and then act upon it is not easy.

Humanity will essentially have to make large changes in how it consumes natural resources, and instilling massive societal changes is difficult. And society has become more short-term in its thinking, he asserted.

Gore took quite the flaming from CNET News.com's readers, many of whom questioned his motives and said he's hard to take seriously.

"You never see him driving around in hybrid," one reader wrote on the Talkback board. "Instead, I'm always reading about him motoring around in limos or Suburbans, and traveling by private jet instead of going commercial...I say start practicing what you preach before you ask me to have some Kool-Aid."

Gore's speech, also mulled over by News.com's Charles Cooper, came on the heels of a report released at the conference predicting that the permanent Arctic ice sheet could nearly melt away by 2040. (The earlier estimate was 2060.)

But not all the news was somber. Controls imposed on coal-burning power plants have reduced nitrogen-oxide pollution in the Ohio River Valley over the last six years, according to a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And the scientific work abounds. For example, a pair of roving satellites is being used to track the world's water supply by measuring its gravitational field. Among the findings of the NASA-sponsored Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, the Congo River has been losing about 21.6 millimeters in depth every year for the past three years

Up in space, Opportunity, the healthier of NASA's two Mars rovers, will explore the rim of a large crater for more information on the Martian water and may even plunge inside.

Opportunity has made it to the lip of Victoria Crater, a fairly large crater on Mars, said Steve Squyres, the principal investigator from the Mars Exploration Rover program and a professor at Cornell University. Victoria's geology potentially will yield important clues about the chemistry and extent of the groundwater that Squyres and others believe existed on Mars in the distant past.

Talk of the environment was also taking place outside the conference walls. One story pointed out that pollution penance isn't just for heavy industry anymore.

This year, several Web-delivered services emerged that are designed to reduce an individual's environmental impact on the planet. Called carbon offsets, these programs are meant to appeal to people concerned about climate change that stems from greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, Andy Karsner, a senior Energy Department official tells of the dialogue he's started with tech leaders to figure out how his agency can help tackle energy efficiency in computing.

In the Zune zone
For Microsoft, trying to catch up to the iPod is an expensive proposition. To tout its Zune music player, Microsoft launched a marketing campaign on par with that for the original Xbox. But now that the music player has spent a month on the market, the company is considering increasing its advertising to attract more attention to it.

Microsoft debuted the Zune to mixed reviews last month. The device had a strong initial sales week, but has dipped in sales rankings since that point, according to market tracker NPD and online retailer Amazon.com's sales chart.

News.com's Ina Fried, for one, had trouble tracking down owners of the Zune, a music player that's supposed to be all about sharing and socializing. Unlike the solitary iPods, the digital music player lets you make new friends and discover new music. But it took Fried a week to find a Zune pal.

Also in Microsoft news this week, the company issued an update to Windows Vista designed to thwart "a workaround dubbed frankenbuild" because it works by combining test versions of Vista with the final code to create a hybrid version. The technique let some people use pirated versions of the operating system without going through the software's built-in product activation.

"Frankenbuild" had News.com readers doing the oh so familiar flaming/praising of the software giant. One reader says the company is only further pushing "would-be Vista installed sites to go the open-source route" with its "continuing kludgy efforts to combat piracy." Another, however, says it's hardware, not operating systems, that is the problem.

"Until the hard drives are spinning (even at 15k RPM) we will be blaming Microsoft for not making enough effort to make sure that the Volkswagen Rabbit runs on par with Mercedes Benz," the reader said.

On the security front, Microsoft is promoting the use of Windows Security Center, a feature in the long-awaited operating system, as a way for Web sites and third-party software programs to gauge the security status of customer PCs. This could be used to deny computers that aren't fully protected access to online services, which ultimately is good for user safety, Microsoft said.

While a lofty goal, others predict businesses won't want to risk losing customers and consumers may balk at the perceived privacy intrusion.

Also out of Redmond this week, the company took the wraps off its first commercial operating system for robots, with hopes of paving the way for a broader robotics industry and taking a central role in its development.

The technology, called Microsoft Robotics Studio, is a Windows-based software platform designed to make it relatively simple to program robots--real or simulated. Compatible with several different pieces of hardware, like iRobot's Roomba or the Lego Mindstorms NXT "tribot," the software lets enterprising gadget hounds command a device to communicate, send alerts or perform scheduled tasks.

And Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard announced that they plan to spend $300 million over the next three years in an expanded effort to jointly sell technology to large businesses. The new deal calls for, among other things, more HP workers to be trained to sell Microsoft products.

HP and Microsoft are longtime partners in a wide range of consumer and business areas. The $300 million figure covers product development, testing, validation, deployment, and joint sales and marketing costs, the companies said.

Tech survival skills
The tragic death of CNET colleague James Kim and the wilderness rescue of his wife and children last week have prompted many of us to wonder if we're prepared enough for bad weather and other emergencies.

News.com turned to readers for suggestions, and compiled a summary of their tips and suggestions for wilderness survival as the first article in a three-part series.

The second article highlighted automotive safety features that are increasingly being developed to address emergencies, with communications technology a top priority.

And the third in our series focused on how mobile coverage in rural areas could get worse before it gets better, leaving many vulnerable during emergencies.

Please click here for information on how to help the James Kim family.

Also of note
The imminent demise of iTunes appears to have been somewhat exaggerated...Two Michigan Democrats want Mark Hurd to explain why he sold stock just before HP's controversial spying operation became public...Cingular turns cell phones into wallets in N.Y. trial...IBM is investing big to see how it can make 3D virtual environments pay off...Google launches patent search site...Maker of new controversial evangelical game launches social-networking site...Firefox 3 gets a first run...UCLA break-in puts data on 800,000 at risk...Va. proposal would track sex offenders by e-mail, IM...TV networks may form anti-YouTube cabal.