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Netflix Without the Mailings

Netflix Netflix just announced plans to begin dispatching movies straight to televisions through an LG-Electronics-made, Internet-connected set-top box. Netflix distributes most of its content—movies, TV shows and more—the old-fashioned way: through the mail. More than 7 million subscribers take part in one of its many rental plans, sending and receiving DVDs in small square envelopes. Now, thanks to high-speed Internet connections, the company is hoping to quicken the process, and allow customers to rent movies via the Web.

Netflix has already dipped its toes into this arena, but its "Watch Instantly" program hasn't fully caught on, in part because most users had to watch the content on their computers. The LG box will change that, allowing users to watch up to 40 hours of movies and shows per month. The selection isn't as great, but it's still significant. The company's DVD library is 90,000 titles strong, and the online selection currently has more than 6,000 options.

The LG partnership is also just a first step. Netflix plans to sign deals with numerous electronics companies, and transform itself into more of a movie channel than an Internet-age Blockbuster. Will it be the leader in online video rentals? Apple might have something to say about that.—Gregory Mone

Shell Tries to Turn Algae into Fuel

Solix_ss_algae Last week, the oil company Royal Dutch Shell announced plans to build an algae biodiesel plant in Hawaii. The project will progress in stages: first, the company will build a small research plant, with hopes to build a full-scale commercial plant within two years. Algae is an incredibly tantalizing yet frustrating potential fuel source, as PopSci's Elizabeth Svoboda found out earlier this year when writing the tale of an algae biodiesel startup in Colorado. The microbes can create enormous amounts of oil from very little in the way of nutrients and land, but extracting the oil and converting it to biodiesel remains extremely difficult.

Shell is partnering with Hawaii-based HR Biopetroleum on their project, and hopes to produce 8.5 million barrels of biodiesel a year at the commercial plant.—Michael Moyer

(Image Credit: Dan Bihn)

Innovation of the Year Winner Nanosolar Ships Its First Low-Cost Solar Panels

Powersheet_blog After years of development, Nanosolar has announced today that they have shipped their first batch of inexpensive solar panels to the site of their first real-world deployment, a megawatt solar plant being built on the surface of a landfill in eastern Germany.

Nanosolar's innovative process for "printing" thin, inexpensive solar panels has attracted several high-profile investors, including Google's co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. By simplifying the manufacturing process and eliminating pricey silicon, many see the new process as the breakthrough needed to drive cheap solar power into the mainstream (many including we here at PopSci—the Powersheet received our "Innovation of the Year" award in this year's Best of What's New).

The first production panels to roll off the assembly line are getting special attention—one's being exhibited at Nanosolar HQ, another is heading for the Tech Museum in San Jose, and a third has been put up for auction on eBay. The current going rate for a piece of green tech history is $1,095—get your bids in now!

For much more information on the Powersheet, including an animated movie detailing exactly how it works, see its entry in our Best of What's New 2007 list. —John Mahoney

(Image Credit: Brian Klutch)

A Whopper of a Cell Phone Bill

Cell_phone A 22-year-old oil field worker worker set what must be a world record for a cell phone bill. Piotr Staniaszek, who usually pays less than $150 a month for his phone, saw his November bill clock in at $59,000. When he called to complain, his carrier said the number was incorrect. In fact, his bill was going to be $83,000. This wasn't a clerical mix-up, though. Staniaszek used his phone to download high-res movies to his computers, and since he's charged for data usage, the enormous files pushed his bill into the stratosphere. In this case, it actually would have been cheaper to get an iPhone.

He has since negotiated with his carrier, and brought the bill down to $3,195. Let's hope those were some good movies.—Gregory Mone

Via AP

Congressman Makes Virtual Appearance at Climate Summit

Bu_markey_avatar_bx103 Since Representative Edward Markey couldn't be in Bali for the United Nations climate change meeting, he appeared virtually instead. With the help of a staffer, Markey created an avatar in Second Life, and addressed the meeting via video screen, from his place in the virtual world. Sadly, he didn't get too adventurous with his dress. Even his avatar looks like a Capitol Hill insider.

Markey said he couldn't be there because he needed to be in the US to help pass a clean energy bill, but he should've taken a greener-than-thou route instead. Why did any of them waste the jet fuel going to Bali? They all should have stayed home, saved the fuel, and met in Second Life instead.—Gregory Mone

Via SFGate

A Techie Word of the Year

Wootcoffee Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher, awarded "w00t" with the title of word of the year. The word, which is typically spelled with two zeros in the middle, is the equivalent of "yay." It's an expression of joy. The origin of the word is debated - some say it's derived from a sound made in the game Quake III. Others say it came from Dungeons and Dragons, and is shorthand for "Wow, loot!" Still others attribute it to hackers, calling it code for root access to a computer.

Regardless, it's one of a host of new alphanumeric words that have popped out of our text-messaging and game-loving culture.—Gregory Mone

Google's Larry Page to Wed on Sir Richard Branson's Private Caribbean Isle

Skull_island We're a little miffed to not be on the 600-strong invite list to Larry Page's wedding, which is going down this weekend on Sir Richard Branson's private Caribbean island (he's got to have a Dr. No-ish clandestine research lab there, right?) What with all the love we give to the exploits of Google and Sir Richard, you'd think they'd be in a position to reciprocate.

Page, who along with co-founder Sergey Brin is worth in the neighborhood of $18.5 billion, will be flying his star studded guest list—Bill & HIllary, Bono (of course)—out to Skull Island Sir Richard's place on private jets. Where they will certainly proceed to get wasted, stuff themselves w/ endangered species, pull pranks on the android butlers, swim with dolphins...no, no, I'm sure it will be quite a lovely and dignified weekend. Nothing against these guys and we wish them all the best. We're just a little jealous. —John Mahoney

(Image: Joe DeVito)

Why Are Truffles So Expensive?


You may have heard earlier this week that the world's largest truffle (at 3.3 pounds) sold at auction for $330,000—the largest sum ever paid for a single specimen of the rarified fungal delicacy. The auction, which was held simultaneously in London, Florence and Macau, was won by Macau casino magnate Stanley Ho, who outbid luxo-artist Damien Hirst (of multi-million-dollar diamond skull fame), among others. Ho's plans for the 'shroom are still unknown.

If you're quick on your feet, you've probably already put that into supermarket terms—an astronomical $100,000 per pound. While the hype value of the "world's largest" aspect of this auction inflated the price significantly, even at normal market price, truffles are among the most expensive food items on the planet. Why?

Because just about every truffle that lands on your plate has to be not picked but found—underground, mind you—by a human being, usually with the help of a specially trained mushroom-sniffing dog. All species of truffle (in the Tuber genus) are ectomycorrhizal, meaning they require a symbiotic relationship with roots of specific trees to live. The truffles, sprouting underground attached to the roots, get easy access to the nourishing sugars created by the tree during photosynthesis. The tree gets the benefit of increased root surface area with which water and nutrients can be better absorbed.

While it is possible to manually inoculate the roots of young trees with certain species of Tuber fungi, theoretically turning said tree into a truffle factory, the symbiotic relationship relies on numerous variables to thrive, including the presence of other fungi, soil and weather conditions, and specific types of trees. Add to that lag times of up to 20 years before truffles begin to sprout if you're lucky enough to get them to grow at all, and you've got one impossibly finicky plant to cultivate. It hasn't stopped humans from trying ever since the first proto-gourmand went ga-ga over the rich, earthy goodness of truffles hundreds of years ago. But there's still quite a long way to go. —John Mahoney

Not Quite Rushing Into a Nuclear Future

Normal_hamoakachubu Several companies are planning to build new nuclear reactors in the United States, and they'd like to speed up the approval process to get these plants online as soon as possible, but that might not be happening. All plant designs have to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so if a company wants to construct a new model, or import a proven one from France or Japan, it still has to get the NRC's OK, and this can take a while.

According to the New York Times, three companies have filed applications to build and operate five new reactors - but they've all either substantially modified approved designs or suggested models that haven't gotten NRC approval yet. Which means they're probably not going to be breaking ground as soon as they'd like. For many environmentalists, this is good news, considering the fact that we still haven't figured out what we're going to do with the waste yet. But others insist that we need nuclear, and we need to start planning new plants now, to meet our growing energy needs and assure that fossil fuels don't consume an increasing slice of that budget in the coming decades as today's nuclear power plants are retired. For more on that idea, settle down with this enormous study.-Gregory Mone

Death by Mobile Phone a Fake

Burnt_phone A strange story coming out of South Korea about an exploding mobile phone that killed a 33-year-old man turned out to be a lie. Surely some people do worry about killer cell phones, but they're probably thinking more along the lines of cancer or some distraction-induced accident—texting while driving, for example, and not seeing an oncoming car.

But an exploding battery? The story seemed improbable, and now one of the victim's co-workers has confessed that he accidentally killed the man while backing up a construction vehicle. All the details haven't emerged yet, but it looks like the co-worker tried to use the exploding phone to dodge the blame.—Gregory Mone

Via Reuters

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