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Monday, June 30, 2008

It's not the price, it's the Dollar

NEW YORK ( -- The weakened dollar isn't just wreaking havoc for Americans traveling overseas - it is hitting consumers right at home.

From soaring prices at the pump to rising food costs, the impact of the declining greenback has been far reaching.

"It touches on so many things when you think about it," said Dustin Reid, senior currency analyst at ABN AMRO in Chicago.

On Monday, the dollar managed a modest rebound against the euro, as the 15-nation currency bought $1.5756, down from $1.5775 late Thursday, but still remains far below where it was just a year ago. The greenback also gained against the British pound in morning trade, but slipped against the Japanese yen.

Oil and gas Many analysts have blamed soaring oil prices, at least in part, on the declining dollar.

Oil, like many other commodities such as wheat and gold, is priced in dollars. So if the greenback weakens, many investors buy the commodity at its current price to hedge against inflation. The drop in the value of the dollar also forces producers and traders to demand more in dollars for their oil in order to reflect its current value.

That increase, however, is not just reflected at the pump. Companies facing rising fuel and ultimately transportation costs often times are forced to pass those increases onto consumers.

Just last week, Dow Chemical Co (DOW, Fortune 500). announced plans to raise the price of its goods by as much as 25% as a result of rising energy costs.

Imports But consumers' pain doesn't end there. They are also getting squeezed by paying more for imported goods.

Even if you don't indulge in Russian caviar or wear a tailored European suit, many everyday items - such as clothing and electronics - as well as the raw materials used to produce American products, come from overseas.

When the dollar's value deteriorates, Americans find that their purchasing power doesn't go as far for foreign goods. But if demand for imports remains strong, that could widen the trade deficit and put further pressure on the dollar.

Exports One silver lining amid all the dollar doom recently has been the boom in U.S. exports.

While the nation's trade gap widened in April, exports have been on the rise in recent months as a weaker dollar makes domestically produced goods more attractive to foreign buyers.

That has also helped lift sales for U.S. manufacturers that export their goods. Shoemaker Nike Inc. (NKE, Fortune 500), which posted a 12% jump in quarterly profit last week, was helped in large part by international sales.

"The fact that the dollar is weak is keeping this country out of a recession and keeping some jobs on the board," said ABN AMRO's Reid.

How we got here To be certain, the dollar has been falling against some of the world's biggest currencies for the better part of this decade.

Much of that decline was driven by the country's widening budget and trade deficits, as the country imported more goods than it exported and the United States government revved up its spending to handle the costs of the war in Iraq.

But it wasn't until the credit crunch erupted that the greenback's decline picked up speed. As of the end of May, the U.S. Dollar Index, which measures the greenback's performance against six of its biggest trading partners, has fallen just over 11%.

Hoping to keep the economy from tipping into a recession, the Federal Reserve swung into action, cutting short-term interest rates seven times since September.

That only served to pressure the dollar further as lower interest rates make dollar-denominated investments less attractive to outside investors. Strong levels of investment in U.S. bonds and equities by overseas governments and foreign investors have long helped prop up the dollar.

Still, most market observers are betting the Fed won't hike rates until later this year or in 2009. There are also no signs of the government cutting back on spending. So the dollar is likely to remain under pressure in the near term.

But that could change once the currency markets get a better sense of the budget plans of the two presidential candidates, notes Shaun Osborne, chief currency strategist in Toronto at TD Securities Inc.

"We have seen already that the dollar is an issue for both McCain and Obama," said Osborne. "But a lot depends on what the new administration does."

Hope for a rescue? Some currency experts such as Kevin Chau, a foreign exchange analyst at IDEAGlobal in New York, are betting that the dollar won't stage a recovery. They see higher oil and food prices continuing to weigh on U.S. consumer confidence, while the outlook for the nation's economy grows increasingly bleaker.

An increasing perception that the dollar is oversold by traders or an interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve would help prop up the greenback, but most market observers aren't expecting that to happen until at least the fall - and possibly not until next year.

Were the dollar's condition to severely worsen, both the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve could orchestrate a rescue by tightening the money supply, including repurchasing government bonds. Or they could seek help from other central banks, who would buy dollar-based assets.

In the meantime, currency experts anticipate that top officials - including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke - will rely on the dollar remedy of choice: publicly stating they support a strong dollar policy. To top of page

Top 10 Luxury Rides by Fortune

Chismillionaire agrees with almost every selection- really spot on mostly- but small sedan must go to the C63 AMG juggernaut. Crossover SUV should go to the Infiniti FX35/50 and Large SUV needs to go to the Mercedes GL550 which oddly did not even place????

Chismillionaire thinks there should be a roadster/convertible category as well in this top 10 with the top 3 spots going to:

Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder
Jaguar XKR Convertible
Porsche Boxter S

Two-seat sports car: Ferrari F430 Scuderia
Two-seat sports car: Ferrari F430 Scuderia
Starting price: $277,456
Power: 4.3-liter, 503-hp V8
2nd place : Porsche 911 Turbo
3rd place: Chevy Corvette

If you can stomach the price, this is a scary-fast, insanely competent (0 to 60 in 3.5 sec), sexy purebred that makes operatic engine sounds unlike any other. Oh yes, and former Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher was crucial to its development.

Purists can argue about the superiority of a mid-engine V-8 Ferrari like the F430 vs. the big front-engine V-12 599 GTB, but my money goes to the playfulness of the mid-engine car. For those who prefer German, the 911 in any guise is unimpeachable, while Audi's R8 is the hottest new entrant. The Corvette, starting at $46,1000, is still the best deal around.

2 + 2/GT car: Nissan GT-R
2 + 2/GT car: Nissan GT-R
Starting price: From $69,850
Power: 480-hp 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V-6
2nd place : Bentley Continental GT Speed
3rd place: Aston Martin DB9

When was the last time you were able to watch a g-meter record in real time the lateral forces you were pulling in while cornering, braking, and accelerating? The crazy-quick (0 to 60 in 3.3 sec), capable GT-R offers, in addition to race-car performance, Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle status in all 50 states.

Benchmarked against the Porsche 911 Turbo, this car is serious business on a budget -- and manages out-run its more expensive all-wheel drive competitors, including the 911 Turbo, the Lamborghini Gallardo, and the Audi R8. It may not have the hand-honed feeling of a European sports car, but picking on a little plastic in the interior is like pointing out a small blemish on a supermodel.

Small coupe: BMW M3
Small coupe: BMW M3
Starting price: From $56,500
Power: 414-hp V-8
2nd place : Audi S5
3rd place: Infiniti G37

It's almost boring to name the M3 the winner -- its engineering and emotional appeal make it a perennial standout. And yet, once in the driver's seat, there's nothing boring about its godlike dynamics, power, and technical prowess, This latest edition is the most serious track star yet, with a carbon fiber roof that not only looks trick to look at but saves weight, too.

Its high-performance pedigree stands out when you drive. BMW has built in multiple electronic systems to tailor the car's performance, from various levels of traction control, suspension sportiness, throttle response, transmission shift points, etc.

Large coupe: Bently Brooklands
Large coupe: Bently Brooklands
Starting price: From $340,990
Power: 6.7-liter, 550-hp V-8
2nd place : Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe
3rd place: BMW M6

Bentley wins for its ability to craft a car that is exclusive to the extreme, -- only 550 will ever be built -- graceful in its grand proportions and flashy yet not overly ostentatious. It requires 660 man-hours to build one, and one man one month to match and finish the wood veneers alone.

The performance is no less to-the-manor-born: the 530-hp V-8 is the most powerful eight-cylinder Bentley has ever brought to market. The engine produces a jaw-dropping 774-ft lb of torque -- which produces what Bentley engineers rightly describe as a tidal wave of power.

Small sedan: Audi S4
Small sedan: Audi S4
Starting price: $66,910
Power: 4.2-liter, 420-hp V-8
2nd place : Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG
3rd place: BMW 335xi

Ask an automotive engineer -- off the record -- to state a benchmark, and chances are he'll pick an Audi. And then there's a high-water mark like the RS 4, which is innovation-rich, ridiculously quick, and competent at everything from daily driving to track-tough floggings.

Touches like bi-xenon high intensity discharge headlights, an aggressive front diffuser, and a svelte spoiler on the rear deck are icing on a rocket.

Mid-size sedan: Jaguar XF Supercharged
Mid-size sedan: Jaguar XF Supercharged
Starting price: $62,975
Power: 420 hp 4.2-liter V-8
2nd place : BMW 550i
3rd place: Audi S6

If Jaguar's new owners, India's Tata Motors, needed any convincing about whether the British marque was capable of building great cars, the XF surely put those to rest.

The sexy XF is one of the freshest and chicest designs around, and compared to the competition, it's loaded for the money. Remarkably, the XK serves up that ever-elusive "customer surprise and delight" that car marketers drone on about but rarely deliver.

To wit: The start-stop button silently heart-throbs in red -- ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom -- and on start-up, all air vents swing open, while the cylindrical gear selector, which sits flush at rest, rises to the occasion. I applaud moving away from those old-fashioned forms and conventional ideas. Oh, and it drives like the wind, too.

Large sedan: Mercedes-Benz S550
Large sedan: Mercedes-Benz S550
Starting price: $86,700
Power: 382-hp V-8
2nd place : Maserati Quattroporte Automatic
3rd place: Lexus LS 600h L

Mercedes is masterful at crafting top-flight luxury sedans, and this latest edition of its flagship sets a new gold standard. The S550, although not as powerful as the super-high performance 518-hp S63 AMG, strikes the perfect balance between power (382 hp), space (109.4 cu. ft. of passenger space vs. 95.8 average for the competition), and relative value (the S63 AMG starts at $127,000).

Throw in the luxury-hotel feeling of the interior -- complete with concierge-like electronic systems -- and it's easy to see why Mercedes still owns this segment.

Crossover/Wagon: Lexus RX400h AWD
Crossover/Wagon: Lexus RX400h AWD
Starting price: $42,980
Power: 268-hp 3.3-liter V-6
2nd place : BMW X6
3rd place: Mercedes-Benz R320 CDI

Luxury? The RX400h is dripping with perks.

Gas mileage? 25 mpg average, 27 highway.

Conscience? It was the first luxury hybrid.

There's also an amazing 38.3 cu. ft. of cargo volume--suitcases ahead of the competition. And impressive refinements and Toyota dependability. Lexus thinks of everything.

Mid-size SUV: Porsche Cayenne GTS
Mid-size SUV: Porsche Cayenne GTS
Starting price: $69,300
Power: 405 hp 4.8-liter V-8
2nd place : Range Rover Supercharged
3rd place: Volvo XC90
Of all the Cayennes (there are now four models), this is the standout: The aggressive front and rear fascia come from the Cayenne Turbo, and a 20-mm-lower stance and improved dynamics give it insanely impeccable ride and handling. The performance is so good, you'll marvel at how Porsche engineers managed to make a 2 1/2 ton truck feel almost as dynamic as one of their precision sports cars.

Large SUV: Lexus LX 570
Large SUV: Lexus LX 570
Starting price: $74,700
Power: 383-hp 5.7-liter V-8
2nd place : Audi Q7
3rd place: Cadillac Escalade

Elegance and proficiency are hard to bake into big SUVs -- but Lexus has. From a power-sliding middle row to more over-the-top gadgetry than any other SUV in its class (there is a 19-speaker Mark Levinson stereo, for example, and you can -- get this -- control the speed of the electric windows!).

Dynamically, systems such as Active Height Control and terrain-sensing antilock brakes (they allow the LX 570 to stop quickly even in sand, which normally defeats conventional ABS technology) make the LX 570 a superlative-spewing winner. If you need so many seats, you won't find better.

First solar power plant factory goes online

LAS VEGAS - Hard by the Las Vegas airport, the industrial infrastructure of the solar economy is rising in a former furniture factory. Phalanxes of orange robots swivel and dip as they practice assembling components for solar power plants to be built by Silicon Valley startup Ausra.

It’s North America’s first solar power plant factory and it goes online Monday when Ausra CEO Robert Fishman and U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, flip the switch to start the production line. Ausra’s automated 130,000-square-foot factory is key to the Palo Alto company’s aim of cutting manufacturing costs to make solar energy competitive with fossil fuels.

A large robot picks up 78-square-foot pieces of glass and places them on a conveyor belt so a machine can apply strips of adhesive. Other robots transfer the glass to another line where a dozen bots weld together 53-foot-long steel frames. The completed solar arrays are trucked to California where Ausra is building a 177-megawatt solar power station for utility PG&E (PCG) on 640 acres of agricultural land in San Luis Obispo County. (To see a video of the robots in action, click here.)

The arrays focus sunlight on water-filled tubes to create steam to drive a turbine. Ausra manufacturing exec David McKay points to where standard-issue boiler pipe will be fed into a machine and treated with a proprietary coating that transforms it into a solar receiver. At peak production the plant will churn out more than 700 megawatts worth of equipment year to keep 2,500 solar power plant construction workers employed. “We can produce a lot faster than what we can install,” says McKay.

However, the future of those jobs – and billions in future investments in renewable energy - hangs on whether Congress extends a crucial investment tax credit that the solar industry and utilities are relying on to make large-scale solar power plants competitive with the carbon-spewing variety. The investment tax credit expires at the end of the year and several attempts to pass legislation extending the ITC have failed despite support on both sides of the aisle.

Green Wombat met with the chairman of the Solar Energy Industries Association, Chris O’Brien, last week when he was in San Francisco to get an update on the ITC’s chances. “It’s an election year and it has become part of the political stalemate,” says O’Brien, who heads North America market development and government relations for Swiss-based solar cell equipment maker Oerlikon Solar. “I don’t see an imminent breakthrough.”

The pending demise of the tax credit is “having a significant effect on the development of new business,” according to O’Brien. Solar energy executives, of course, are reluctant to admit that deals are getting dashed, but there’s no doubt the loss of a 30 percent tax credit gives financiers and utilities pause when considering whether to green-light solar power plants that can cost a billion or two to construct.

O’Brien thinks the best-case scenario for the long-term extension of the ITC will come after the presidential election during the lame-duck session of Congress. Otherwise, he says, don’t expect action until around September 2009.

In the meantime, Ausra will keep its robots busy cranking out components for its first California power plant, which is scheduled to start producing green electricity in 2010.

Rock band 2 a go for September

Rock Band 2 Officially Announced

By Earnest Cavalli EmailJune 30, 2008 | 9:09:29 AMCategories: Console Games

Rock_band2lg Rock Band 2 will be arriving on the Xbox 360 this September, with versions for other platforms following soon after, reports IGN.

Fans of the original Rock Band whose hard drives are filled with downloadable tracks for that title will be pleased to learn that the second game will support these older tracks.

"As successful as the original Rock Band continues to be, we've now had the benefit of the last eight months to listen to our fans' requests and to build upon that foundation," said Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos.

"Rock Band 2 is a second-generation band game that will elevate the music game experience to the next level."

Though the number of tracks (or any of the artists scheduled to appear) has yet to be announced, Harmonix assures fans that every track in the game will be a master recording.

Additionally, the original game's faux instruments will also be fully compatible with the sequel, though a new, upgraded instrument set is also planned.

Image courtesy Harmonix

Rock Band 2 this September [IGN]

For those who serve their country- a run down of the new G.I. Bill

New GI Bill Overview

The new GI Bill (Chapter 33) or so-called "GI Bill for the 21st Century," boasts the most comprehensive education benefits package since the original GI Bill was signed into law in 1944.

Many post 9/11 veterans and servicemembers will soon see a new package of education benefits. This new Post 9/11 GI Bill, or so-called GI Bill for the 21st Century, boasts the most comprehensive education benefits package since the original GI Bill was signed into law in 1944.

The new bill goes well beyond helping to pay for tuition; many veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, will get full tuition and fees, a new monthly housing stipend, and a $1,000 a year stipend for books and supplies. The new bill also gives Reserve and Guard members who have been activated for more than 90 days since 9/11 access to the same GI Bill benefits.

The following fact sheet provides a quick reference to answer the following questions you may have about Senator Webb’s Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Benefits Start Date

This new GI Bill is set to go into affect on August 1, 2009. However, as with any new legislation, it could take some time for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to begin paying benefits.

Eligibility for the New GI Bill

If you have served a total of at least 90 days on active duty in the Armed Forces you’re eligible. However, the amount of benefits you receive under this program are determined by the actual amount of accumulated post 9/11 service you have.

To be eligible for the full benefit, you must have three years of active duty service after 9/11 or have been discharged due to a service-connected disability.

If you are an officer who graduated from a service academy or received ROTC scholarships, you also qualify for the new GI Bill benefits. However, your ROTC/Service Academy associated obligated active-duty service time does not count toward the three years necessary to qualify for the full benefits.

Note: You didn’t have to opt-in for the Montgomery GI Bill to be eligible for this program.

See the complete eligibility details for further information.

New GI Bill Payment Rates

The Post 9/11 GI Bill will provide up to 100% of your tuition. In addition, the program provides a monthly housing stipend a stipend of up to $1,000 a year for books and supplies. If you attend less than full-time will receive a portion of the payment based on the number of units of study.

The amount of tuition and stipends paid under the Post 9/11 GI Bill will vary depending on your state of residence, number of units taken, and amount of post Sept. 11, 2001 active-duty service. Here is a quick reference showing the percentage of total combined benefit eligibility based on the following periods of post 9/11 service:

  • 100% - 36 or more total months
  • 100% - 30 or more consecutive days with Disability related Discharge.
  • 90% - 30 total months
  • 80% - 24 total months
  • 70% - 18 total months
  • 60% - 12 total months
  • 50% - six total months
  • 40% - 90 or more consecutive days

Tuition Rates

Under the new GI Bill you will be provided tuition up to the highest established charges for full-time undergraduate students charged by the public institution of higher education in the State in which you are enrolled.
One of the added features of this tuition payment plan is that the tuition will be paid directly to the school, relieving you of the responsibility. This is similar to the process used for military tuition assistance.

Monthly Housing Stipend

If you are enrolled in a traditional college program as a full time or three-quarter time student, you will be paid a monthly housing stipend equal to the monthly amount of the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) for an E-5 with dependents. The average housing stipend will be approximately $1,400 a month. However if you attend distance learning programs such as correspondence courses and online you will not qualify for this stipend.

Book and Supply Stipend

You will receive a lump sum payment the first month of each quarter, semester, or term. The payment will help cover the cost of books, supplies, equipment, and other educational fees for that academic term. The payment amount will be equal to either a quarter or half of the annual $1,000 cap for that academic year, depending on how the academic year is divided – quarter or semester terms.

Benefits Expiration Date

Unlike the Montgomery GI Bill, the new GI Bill will allow you to use this benefit for up to 15 years after your last discharge or separation from active duty.

Licensing and Certification Payments

This new GI Bill will provide up to $2,000 to cover the cost of one licensing or certification test. This benefit is not charged against your 36 month entitlement.

Tutorial Assistance

Like the Montgomery GI Bill, the new GI Bill will provide up to a maximum of $1,200 for tutorial assistance. The program will pay up to $100 per month, for a maximum of 12 months. This benefit is not charged against your 36 month entitlement.

Benefit Transferability

Although the details have yet to be worked out, the new GI Bill will enable you to transfer a portion of your 36 month benefit entitlement to a designated dependent. This will likely require you to re-enlist to take advantage of this feature.

Comparing the Old and New GI Bill’s

The following table highlights the differences between the Montgomery GI Bill and the New GI Bill.

Montgomery GI Bill
Chapter 30

Post 9/11 GI Bill
Proposed - Chapter 33

Payment Rate for
Full-Time Student

Annually set - nationwide - monthly payment rate. Set to increase to $1321 for 2008-2009. Paid to the student each month.

A payment indexed to full in-state tuition for public schools. A lump sum paid directly to the school each term.

Duration of Program

36 Month entitlement.

36 Month entitlement.

Additional expense

No additional payments for expenses.

Living Expenses - stipend based on local BAH for E-5 with dependents – paid monthly avg. amount app. $1,400 a month.

Books and Fees - Up to $1,000 a year.

Eligibility Requirements

Those who entered service the military after June 30, 1985.

Active-duty service since Sept. 11, 2001.


No - Except those who elected to convert in the past.

Yes – those who meet the eligibility criteria above.

Benefit Expiration

10 Years after separation or discharge.

15 Years after discharge or separation.

Transfer benefits
to families

Limited - Currently Limited to Army for Critical MOS only.

Yes - Although the details are still to be released.

Enrollment fee

Yes - $1,200

None - Those who have not yet completed paying their $1,200 for the MGIB may elect to stop further payment.

Affects on Existing GI Bill Benefits

If you are already enrolled in the Montgomery GI Bill and also meet the criteria for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, you have the option to transfer your remaining MGIB benefits to the new program.
For many veterans this will be a good option. However, due to the tuition limits set by this new GI Bill, many veterans who are pursuing a post-graduate degree may find the MGIB betters suits their needs. This is also true for those students pursuing an online degree, as this new benefit will not pay the housing stipend to students enrolled in distance learning programs.

Further Eligibility Details:

  • You qualify for 100% of the benefit if you have a total of at least 36 months on active duty in the Armed Forces. This includes service on active duty for entry level and skill training.
  • You qualify for 100% of the benefit if you have a total of at least 30 continuous days on active duty in the Armed Forces; and after completion of service were discharged or released from active duty in the Armed Forces for a service-connected disability.
  • You qualify for 90% of the benefit if you have a total of at least30 months, but less than 36 months, on active duty in the Armed Forces.
    (including service on active duty in entry level and skill training).
  • You qualify for 80% of the benefit if you have a total of at least 24 months, but less than 30 months, on active duty in the Armed Forces.
    (including service on active duty in entry level and skill training).
  • You qualify for 70% of the benefit if you have a total of at least 18 months, but less than 24 months, on active duty in the Armed Forces.
    (excluding service on active duty in entry level and skill training).
  • You qualify for 60% of the benefit if you have a total of at least 12 months, but less than 18 months, on active duty in the Armed Forces.
    (excluding service on active duty in entry level and skill training)
  • You qualify for 50% of the benefit if you have a total of at least 6 months, but less than 12 months, on active duty in the Armed Forces.
    (excluding service on active duty in entry level and skill training)
  • You qualify for 40% of the benefit if you have a total of at least 90 days, but less than 6 months, on active duty in the Armed Forces.
    (excluding service on active duty in entry level and skill training)

For Blasster-Some Proof that Marijuana is a Powerful Medicine

By Aaron Rowe June 29, 2008 | 4:31:40 PM Email


Marijuana contains an amazing chemical, beta-caryophyllene, and scientists have thoroughly proven that it could be used to treat pain, inflammation, atherosclerosis, and osteoporosis.

Jürg Gertsch, of ETH Zürich, and his collaborators from three other universities learned that the natural molecule can activate a protein called cannabinoid receptor type 2. When that biological button is pushed, it soothes the immune system, increases bone mass, and blocks pain signals -- without causing euphoria or interfering with the central nervous system.

Gertsch and his team published their findings on June 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.They focused on the anti-inflammatory properties of the impressive substance -- testing it on immune cells called monocytes and also in mice.

Since beta-caryophyllene seems to be powerful, occurs naturally in many foods, and does not get people high, it could turn out to be a nearly ideal medication. The organic compound is also phenomenally cheap. Sigma Aldrich sells it, in kosher form, for forty-two dollars per kilogram.

Unfortunately, big pharmaceutical companies tend not to seek FDA approval for natural chemicals, and most doctors are reluctant to prescribe drugs that have not received a green light from the regulatory agency. Thus, it would require a heroic effort by academic researchers to prove that beta-caryophyllene is safe and effective in humans.

Perhaps, before that happens, the natural substance will find its way into the herbal medicine aisle of health food stores.

Photo: Jaypeg21 / flickr
Thanks for the tip, Rick Henrikson

Do it yourself multi touch display

The iPhone popularized multitouch displays--touch screens that ­recognize more than one touch at a time. Then Microsoft brought them to the large screen with the Surface, a multitouch table. Now engineers at Nortd in New York have created a do-it-yourself, 18-by-27-inch multitouch screen. By using open-source software and selling kits for building the hardware, Nortd has significantly reduced the cost of owning a multitouch display, while enabling freelance programmers to develop novel applications.

Courtesy of Nortd

Product: TouchKit

Cost: $1,080 unassembled, $1,580 assembled


Company: Nortd

Mail Order Genetic Screening

larger text tool icon

Recent years have seen a flood of studies linking genetic variations to particular diseases, and companies are trying to parlay those discoveries into direct-to-consumer genetic tests. ­Navigenics mails its subscribers containers for saliva samples. When it gets the samples back, it uses microarrays--chips studded with fragments of DNA--to screen the subscribers' DNA for genetic variations linked to 18 diseases, including Alzheimer's and colon cancer. Such genetic screening has received little clinical evaluation, however, so whether it helps prevent disease is unclear.

Credit: Joshua Scott

Product: Health Compass

Cost: $2,500 for the initial test; $250 a year for continued consultation


Company: Navigenics

Sol Focus does solar cheaper

larger text tool icon

New solar arrays from SolFocus generate more power than conventional solar panels but use just one-thousandth as much expensive semiconductor material. The arrays' curved mirrors focus sunlight onto one-square-centimeter solar cells, concentrating the light 500 times and improving the cells' efficiency. SolFocus's first power-producing installation will be generating 500 kilowatts of electricity by the end of the summer. The company expects that by 2010, electricity from its arrays will be about as cheap as electricity from conventional sources.

Courtesy of SolFocus

Product: SF-1000S-CPV-30 6.2-kilowatt 30-panel array

Cost: 24 to 28 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity; SolFocus expects that figure to fall to 13 to 14 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2010


Company: SolFocus

Every TV, an Internet TV

Plug one end of the ZvBox into your Windows PC, the other into an ordinary cable TV wall socket, and you can watch high-definition Internet video on any digital TV in the house. Inside the ZvBox is a new type of chip that converts a computer's video output into a digital TV signal, something only costly professional gear could previously do. The box comes with a remote that lets you control your computer from wherever you watch TV.

Credit: Joshua Scott

Product: ZvBox

Cost: $499.99


Company: ZeeVee

Korea vs the Krauts

So this is it — the car that's going to reset the bar, make Korea a true world-conqueror, and send the traditional luxury brands quivering in their fancy Italian loafers. A game-changer. A lot of statements have been made about the Hyundai Genesis, but until now, no one had driven one on U.S. soil. That's no longer the case.

Naturally, we weren't going to accept our invitation to drive this big Hyundai without lining up some sort of control car. Indeed, this situation seemed to be seriously lacking one crotchety old man to remind the Genesis how things were in the good ol' days, when the Europeans were the go-to choice for a classy import. And none are quite as classy, and classic, as the Mercedes E-class, a car whose genealogy can be traced back to the W121 models of the 1950s.


Of course, the Benz isn't a direct-price competitor, but it is a symbolic one, the car Hyundai chose for early benchmarking. Hey, it sounded crazy to us, too, but like Pontiac going after the BMW 5-series with the G8, the idea is to make shoppers think, "Why would I buy a Toyota Avalon when I could have a budget E-class?" rather than to convince Mercedes buyers to save a year's worth of college tuition for Junior by stepping down to a Hyundai.

However, a few Benz buyers could be tempted if they took the time to examine the situation. That price differential is severe — our E550's as-tested price of $67,865, which includes an optional panorama roof, park-distance control, a premium package (navigation, heated/cooled seats, Sirius, and Bluetooth), and an AMG sports package (18-inch wheels, metal paddle shifters, plus AMG bodywork and exhaust), is almost $26,000 more than the Genesis. This Hyundai isn't a stripper, either — our V-8 Genesis sedan features a technology package featuring an upgraded stereo, navigation, a rear backup camera, Bluetooth, XM with NavTraffic, HID headlights, and a cooled driver's seat.

If there's one other area in which the Genesis handily overtakes the E-class, it's in space. With a 195.9-inch by 73.4-inch footprint, the Genesis stretches 4.9 inches longer and 1.7 inches wider than an E550, while its 115.6-inch wheelbase (3.2 inches more than the E) allows the Genesis to boast a passenger cabin volume equal to that of the Mercedes S-class. If you're keeping track, that's C-class price, E-class vibe, and S-class room. But for all we know at this point, the Genesis might be the dynamic equivalent of the Geländewagen. To find out how the big Korean stacks up, we're heading west from Bakersfield, California, ready to traverse the San Rafael range toward Santa Barbara with two tanks of high-test fuel.



Although it requires an additional 0.9 liters of displacement to do so, the E550 has the distinction of being the only car in its class with more power than the Genesis. Its 5.5-liter V-8 whips 382 horses at 6000 rpm while the Hyundai's 4.6-liter motivates seven fewer ponies at the same engine speed. But the Merc's higher displacement pays off in torque, carving out a strong plateau of 391 lb-ft from 2800 to 4800 rpm. The Hyundai's 333 lb-ft build more slowly, peaking at 4500 rpm. Hampered further by a mild throttle tip-in and a six-speed transmission that's always looking to jump into the highest gear possible, that difference is noticeable at the exit of every low-speed turn California's Highway 33 throws our way. The E550, with one extra gear to choose from, always holds on to the right cog.

In fact, the Genesis feels a step behind the Mercedes all the way around. The steering, a speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion system with a relatively low ratio of 14.86:1, provides more feedback than the unaided hydraulic system in the V-6 Genesis, but feels lighter and more Lexus-like than the German. The E550's artificially heavy feel might not be best in class, but it's playing that role pretty well today.

The most surprising thing about the Hyundai's suspension is that it's actually been stiffened significantly beyond the Korean market car's. But it is still much softer than the Benz, and biases the car toward cruising. It exhibits a level of insulation that'll appeal more to traditional luxury buyers than those expecting extreme road-carving performance.

Two factors in particular contribute to the Benz's comparative athleticism: a 3885-lb curb weight that undercuts the Genesis by 120 pounds, and an Airmatic suspension that allows the driver to pick between three levels of pavement stomping. Even on the softest setting, the Mercedes still feels more aggressive than the Genesis. The two cars are almost dynamic opposites — in the Benz, every road irregularity, every crumbled bit of rock dropped from a cliff is transmitted to the driver. The Hyundai erases those small details completely, but when it comes to sweeps in the road and off-camber corners, the multi-link front and rear suspension can't quite keep up. The chassis is slow to respond to driver inputs and there's too much travel on rebound. Overall, it falls in somewhere between a non-sport package Mercedes and a Lexus GS.


That said, the softness actually helps the Genesis work around understeer. There's enough power and enough looseness in the suspension that small throttle adjustments will lighten up the rear end and cause the car to rotate in a slow, controllable manner. Meanwhile, ESP corrects the slide without completely shutting down the fun. Narrower 235/50R18 all-season tires are more willing to break loose than the Merc's 265/35R18 rear summers, which only let go under full, merciless mashes of the throttle.

After a half-hour of hard driving, the Mercedes begins to show some weaknesses, too. The brake pedal, which from the beginning had too much travel before biting down, has developed a light shudder and even more give, the result of downhill switchbacks in 100-degree heat. Its 13-inch front rotors and four-piston calipers are the same setup as in the Genesis, though the rears are slightly smaller. Yet the Hyundai's brakes aren't exhibiting the same fade despite the extra weight they're stopping. And they've delivered impressive feel right from the beginning, with perfectly linear input right from the first millimeter of travel. Hyundai's pushed the safety angle with its cars ever since it made ESP standard across the line, so it is fitting that the Genesis' standout feature is its binders.

Stereo geeks will say that the best feature is actually inside the cabin, though. The Genesis V-8 uses a standard 14-speaker system from high-end maker Lexicon, a company that heretofore worked only with Rolls-Royce. Our test car has an upgraded system, a 17-speaker sound orgy complete with 528 watts of Logic7 Discrete 7.1 audio and a 40-gig hard drive. Only a few systems — those in the Lexus LS and Infiniti M come to mind — provide such clarity throughout the range, from deep bass to piercing treble.

The Hyundai's interior is otherwise impressive but decidedly conservative. Buttons are laid out logically and a long stretch of leather replaces the standard car's wood dash inlay. It's an interesting, attractive touch that's an inexpensive and simple way to silence dashstrokers who might not think the wood looks real enough. Unfortunately, Hyundai saw it necessary to mimic the console-mounted iDrive-style control dials of its competition. While it works well, the navigation screen is well within reach and touch controls would have been just as convenient. Outside of that one detail, the cabin is a soft, quiet, and comfortable place.

But you can still feel the cost differential. The Genesis's buttons don't feel heavy and expensive like the E550's. When you put the Hyundai in gear, the shift lever lacks the Benz's damping. The E-class's air vents and control stalks even feel as if they had a whole team of engineers dedicated just to them.

If we're being too hard on the Genesis, it is only because of the bar that's been set for it by the company itself and by the readers in forum communities. Take away the claims, the benchmarks, and the hype, and it's a truly impressive car for the money. Pit it against the cars in its price range, which will include the Chrysler 300C, the Pontiac G8, and the Nissan Maxima, and it's hard to be unimpressed by its space, power, and features. The G8 might be the most athletic of that set, but the Genesis counters with more refinement and a long list of toys the Pontiac doesn't offer.

The Genesis is a brand-new concept for Hyundai in this country, and pitting it against the veteran Mercedes shows that, for all the significance of Hyundai's ambitions, the new kid in town still has a few lessons to learn. Our suggestion to Hyundai: keep the V-6 Genesis the way it is for the masses. That car's plenty fast (more on that next week) and incredibly comfortable. Maybe add more premium options like a panorama roof or rear seat entertainment. But for the customers who want the extra power of the V-8, offer a sport package. Tighten up the suspension, dial in more steering feel, and add a sport algorithm to the transmission. Give it 19-inch wheels with wider rubber. Make the exhaust just a hair angrier. Dress it up with aluminum trim and more aggressive bodywork. That might, just might, scare the old guard from Germany.


Ram Box safety release

Trapped in the RamBox?

2009 Dodge Ram sports an unusual safety feature
Posted June 27 2008 07:46 AM by Evan.McCausland
Filed under: Car Ramblings & Reviews, Evan McCausland, Dodge, Pickups

I had a chance to look over (but not drive) the 2009 Dodge Ram the other day, and I discovered an interesting quirk by means of the RamBox. It's not that I find the bed-mounted storage boxes odd, but something inside of them caught my eye.

2009 Dodge Ram - RamBox Cover

It was a glow-in-the-dark emergency release.

2009 Dodge Ram - Emergency Release

Over the past few years, I've seen these pulls implemented across numerous vehicles - and I couldn't be happier. These handles allow children and other occupants trapped within trunks an emergency escape; one quick pull of the phosphorescent plastic handle, and pop goes the latch. If an inexpensive part helps to save lives and reduce tragedies, I'm all for it.

But as they carry only 8.6 cubic feet of cargo, why does the RamBox include the pulls? Interesting question, but the answer lies within Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard number 401. Any vehicle that sports a trunk compartment must be equipped with an interior release that allows for trapped occupants to escape.

Sensible, but is the RamBox really a trunk? According to the FMVSS, a cargo area is a trunk if

  • it is intended to carry luggage or cargo (check)
  • it sports a closable lid (check)
  • it is wholly-separated from the passenger compartment (check)
  • it is large enough to hold a standardized dummy, sized to an average three-year old child (check)
Well, I can't confirm the last point; I'm certainly not going to go stuff a Cabbage Patch doll into the cubby to see if it's feasible.

Although I think customers are more likely to place a set of tools inside the RamBox than their small child, I suppose it's much better to be safe than sorry...

Hyundai Genesis Coupe

We love surprises. So we were pretty delighted when, while attending the press launch for the Genesis sedan, Hyundai Motor America VP and product planning guru John Krafcik pulled up in a blue Genesis coupe and invited a few journos to hop on in. Four of us took him up on the offer, filling the attractive little car to the gills—and then some, since the rear is only intended to hold two folks.

The car we rode in was a base V-6–powered model, so there were no Brembo brakes or 19-inch wheels or firmed-up suspension, all of which will characterize the top-spec SE trim level when the car is released early next year. Even stuffed full of well-fed scribes, the car felt quick—310 horsepower can do that for you, and Hyundai predicts 0–60 gallops of under six seconds—and the exhaust note has just the right mix of aggression and refinement. The ride was relatively supple, considering we were riding on the bumpstops, and the car garnered a lot of attention as we cruised the streets of Santa Barbara. (Even from the ladies, who were, uh, amused to find five dudes in one tiny little sports coupe.)

The coupe’s long doors and easily actuated front seats made clambering in back a snap, and there’s a release lever right in the center of the seatback to make getting out easy, too. Once stuffed in our place behind the driver, we were pleasantly surprised to find the accommodations roomier than expected, with plenty of legroom behind Krafcik. Still, at 5 feet 8 inches, this writer’s head just cleared the rear glass, which made going over bumps an exercise in cranial preservation.

The car appears smaller in person that it looks in photographs, and preliminary weight figures have a V-6 model coming in at 3550 pounds and the 223-hp turbocharged four-cylinder version at 3440 pounds. Expect the four-banger to start around $24–$25K and a six-cylinder model to command $28K or so, prices that look awful attractive next to, say, the V-6-only Infiniti G37, which starts at $35,665. (For further reference, the Ford Mustang coupe ranges from $20,445 for a V-6 to $27,035 for a V-8.)

From our ride, the Genesis coupe looks very promising, and we can’t wait to get some real impressions as soon as we can.

Coolest Prank Ever

Monday Tunes with the Kinks

The Kinks, a great band of the ages, but one that seems to have faded into obscurity. Their recording career spanned more than 30 years between 1964 during the time of the Beatles up to 1996. Whereas some of the band members have changed over the years the core group made up of Ray Davies and brother Dave Davies has remained the same. In that time the group released over 24 studio albums and a number of hit singles.

Most people have heard their songs but rarely does anyone give credit for their influence on todays music. They have been covered by bands such as Van Halen, the Pretenders, and newer bands like Ok Go and along with many others. Here is a sampling of what the Kinks have brought to this world. I highly recommend checking them out further.

1963 You Really Got Me

1966 Sunny Afternoon

1970 Lola

1977 Father Christmas

1982 Come Dancing

We can only hope that they continue to be a positive influence in today's music.