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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cell phone radiation strong enough to pop popcorn

Yikes!

Mercedes to go all turbo by 2010

STUTTGART, Germany — Mercedes-Benz will use turbocharging as its fuel-efficiency and emissions-cutting strategy across the lineup, with every one of its products to get turbos by the end of 2010. That's the word from Daimler AG's board member in charge of R&D, Thomas Weber, who made the announcement to Automotive News Europe this week.

The automaker is also planning to put more emphasis on hybrid vehicles, Weber said. For starters, the top-end S-Class is getting a hybrid variant in 2009, he said. Then there's the all-electric Smart Fortwo, which is slated to start production in 2010.

In a recent interview published on Daimler's Web site, Weber said he was "convinced that a sensible attitude toward the environment doesn't have to conflict with a fascination for exciting cars.... Fascination and mobility must and will remain compatible."

What this means to you: Fascinating news from Mercedes as it faces down strict new EU regulations. — Laura Sky Brown, Correspondent

Corvette Concepts spied on set of Transformers 2


EDWARDS, California — Members of the "Ultimate Transformers Resource" fan site, which can be found at seibertron.com have posted spy photos from the set of the upcoming action flick Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, revealing the best shot yet of a mystery car believed to be a new character car in the film.

The shape of the car's fenders as well as its split rear window and aggressive port behind the rear wheel are all well-known Corvette styling cues, suggesting the fantasy car is Corvette-based.

A military-esque dune buggy was also spotted among the ranks, along with the well-known Optimus Prime, Ratchet, Ironhide, two Can-Am Spyders and the Chevrolet Beat and Trax.

The release date for the next installment of Transformers is tentatively set for June 26, 2009. Both Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf are returning to help fight the evil Decepticons.

What this means to you: Look for a new motoring cast member in Transformers 2. — Mike Lysaght, Correspondent

Lotus helps out with RAF's Bobsled


NORFOLK, England — Light weight for racing, apparently, is light weight for racing in any context. That was proven when Lotus Cars teamed up with the U.K.'s Royal Air Force to repair and refurbish the RAF's competition bobsled.

Lotus Group CEO Mike Kimberley accepted an offer from the Royal Air Force to assess one of its sleds that had so much damage that it had been deemed a safety hazard. With its wealth of experience in composites R&D and manufacturing, it was logical that the RAF saw Lotus as the go-to manufacturer for the job.

"Lotus recognized the value of an affiliation between themselves — as an elite car manufacturer — and an extreme sport like Bobsleigh, and this developed into the repair of the project prototype, which so happened to be the worst sled in our inventory," said Flight Lieutenant Craig Dickie, the RAF Bobsleigh team manager.

More than 70 hours of engineering time helped create a functional sled that is now clad in the traditional green-and-gold colors of Lotus.

At its inaugural competition, the RAF sled hit speeds above 77 mph to capture 3rd place at the 2008 Inter-Services Ice Championships in Austria.

Where Americans will cut back and where they won't

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Consumer confidence is in the gutter, inflation is on the rise and the economy is struggling. But even as consumers cut back on spending, there are some things they refuse to give up.

Nine out of 10 Americans said they are cutting back expenses or discretionary spending at least somewhat because of the current economic conditions; according to a recent study from market research firm GfK Roper Consulting.

Only 11% of Americans believed it was a good time to buy things they want or need, down from 16% a year earlier.

Concerns about inflation, U.S. dependence on oil and rising unemployment spanned all income groups and age brackets, according to Jon Berry, vice president of GfK Roper Consulting.

Of course, some are harder hit than others. Because of the heavy dependence on driving, less affluent consumers living in rural areas and parents with children under the age of 18 living at home were among the most impacted from high gas prices, the report said.

Generation X, defined here as Americans between 28 and 43 years old, are also getting especially pinched. They are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to have young children, recently purchased a home or are in the market for one, and fall mostly within the middle class.

But while consumers across the board are cutting back, they're not cutting back across the board.

Consumers cut back, but not entirely

Consumers are finding ways to maintain their quality of life, Berry explained. Even in a time of belt-tightening, Americans are demonstrating a strong "reluctance to give up on everyday pleasures," he said.

But still, many are forced to prioritize and scale back spending somewhere in their lives. "There are clear priorities with dining out, out-of-the-home entertainment, clothes, vacations and buying lunch the first to be cut," Berry said.

But that doesn't mean there's no fun to be had. Many Americans are leaving the car in the garage and staying on their living room couch. A whopping 50% of Americans plan to buy an HD or flat-panel TV in the next year, the study showed, with little difference between those who are hardest hit by the downturn and those who are not. Cable and satellite TV subscriptions are also way down the list on cutbacks.

Despite the expense, another thing consumers refuse to give up altogether is vacationing and travel.

Even in these tough times, 59% of Americans plan to take a trip of 100 or more miles in the next six months - only slightly below the 61% average of recent years.

But that doesn't mean they haven't changed their plans. To grapple with the rising cost of fuel, many consumers are opting for trips closer to home. This year, they may be packing up for Epcot instead of Europe.

To combat the rising cost of food, consumers across all income groups are hunting down coupons to keep buying the items that they want, at a price they can afford. And they may be eating out less, but they are investing more in growing their own greens and dining well at home. Gardening is having a banner year, Berry said.

GfK Roper Consulting's results were from multiple surveys conducted between Dec. 2007 and June 2008 and based on a total of 20,000 interviews with consumers aged 18 and older.

Regulators raid Wachovia


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Securities regulators from several U.S. states on Thursday raided the St. Louis headquarters of Wachovia Securities, seeking documents and records on the company's sales practices.

The move is part of a broad investigation into questionable practices involving auction rate securities, Missouri officials said.

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office said the "special inspection" at the Wachovia division, the former A.G. Edwards, concerned the $330 billion auction-rate securities crisis. Wachovia Securities is part of the Charlotte-based bank, Wachovia Corp. (WB, Fortune 500)

"Hundreds of Missouri investors have called my office because of inability to access their money," Carnahan said in a statement. She added that she aims to take actions to "to make these investors whole."

The action, which also sought information on internal evaluations and marketing strategies, comes after more than 70 formal complaints were filed with the Missouri Securities Division over the last four months, representing more than $40 million of frozen investments.

In April, the Securities Division launched a full-scale investigation, requesting documents, e-mails, transcripts and other records from Wachovia Securities and other banks.

Wachovia Securities has not fully complied with these requests, prompting Thursday's onsite inspection, Missouri officials said.

However, a Wachovia spokeswoman said, "Most securities firms, including Wachovia, are responding to inquiries from regulators about the auction-rate securities industry."

"The discussions that are occurring today are a part of this ongoing process," spokeswoman Christy Phillips-Brown said.

Wachovia, the nation's fourth-largest bank, is the subject of arbitration claims and a class action lawsuit that was filed in New York in March.

Investigating auction-rate securities practices

In a regulatory filing in May, Wachovia said the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators are seeking information concerning the underwriting, sale and subsequent auctions of municipal auction-rate securities and auction-rate preferred securities. The interest rates on such securities are reset at regular auctions. Troubles have arisen as demand for some high-rate securities dries up as rates fall.

"Further review and inquiry is anticipated by the regulatory authorities and Wachovia will cooperate fully," the company said in the filing.

According to the filing, the bank and Wachovia Securities have also been named in a lawsuit filed in March in New York. The lawsuit seeks class action status for customers who purchased and continue to hold such securities based on alleged misrepresentations concerning the quality, risk and characteristics of the securities. The bank said it "intends to vigorously defend the civil litigation."

Wachovia shares rose 37 cents, or 3.5 percent, to $10.91 in afternoon trading

Does Mexico know something about oil supply we don't?

Rumors that Mexico is locking in oil contracts for future delivery at today's prices prompt questions of whether oil's record run has come to a halt.


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- In the last three days oil prices have fallen by roughly $10 a barrel. Many analysts say slackening demand, or the threat of it, is the main culprit.

But another force could be at work in the background. Last week various analysts said there was talk that Mexico, the world's fifth largest oil producer, was hedging its bets - the country was said to be signing contracts to deliver oil several years into the future at today's prices. Essentially, it was betting oil prices have peaked.

"This is a smart move," said Phil Flynn, senior market analyst at Alaron Trading in Chicago, who also thinks there's a good chance prices have peaked. "If I were an oil producer, I'd want to lock in these prices."

Analysts say if other oil producers follow suit and lock in future contracts, that could be one thing that would cause oil prices to fall, far and fast.

But it's hard to tell if that's happening because information about who is buying what is kept private for competitive reasons.

"I don't know who else is doing it," said Nauman Barakat, an energy trader at Macquarie Futures, and one of the traders who mentioned the Mexico news in a research note. "There's been a lot of talk, but it's kept very confidential."

One analyst, speaking on background only, said he had confirmed Mexico was locking in futures contracts. He said it was being done at the behest of the Mexican government, eager to balance a long-term budget, rather than a bet by state oil company PEMEX, that prices will fall.

But could Mexico's move inspire similar steps from other oil producers, and cause oil prices to fall further?

"Absolutely," said Neal Dingmann, senior energy analyst at Dahlman Rose & Co., a New York-based energy investment boutique. "It could create a top in [oil prices] in the near term."

Dingmann said about 50 percent of the production from the firms he covers - mostly small firms - has been sold for future delivery at today's prices.

Why isn't everyone doing it?

The selling from Mexico also begs another question: Oil companies and OPEC have long said oil prices are too high - driven by Wall Street speculators and a falling dollar rather than supply and demand.

So if they really think prices are too high, why aren't they all locking in contracts now?

For starters, it's believed some heavyweights, like Saudi Arabia and Exxon Mobil, don't play the futures market at all - they don't get into the complicated dance of buying and selling futures contracts on NYMEX or any other markets.

In vastly simplified terms, they take whatever price is being offered when their tankers pull into port.

Second, there aren't enough takers for these types of contracts. There simply aren't enough people who are willing to pay $135 dollar for a barrel of oil delivered in 2013, said Fadel Gheit, a senior energy analyst at Oppenheimer.

"Exxon produces 1.2 billion barrels of oil a year," said Gheit. If someone locked in all that production for five years out at today's prices, and crude fell 20%, "it would be a disaster," he said.

For Saudi Arabia and other OPEC counties, non-OPEC oil producers like PEMEX locking in future contracts is a problem.

When the price of oil falls OPEC likes to pump less oil to keep prices up. If producers sign long term contracts, they're obligated to pump that oil making it more difficult for OPEC to control prices.

"You get stuck with this extra production that's out there," said John Kilduff, an energy analyst at MF Global in New York. "Then OPEC has to reduce market share just to maintain price."

On the New York Mercantile Exchange, things are looking fairly balanced for the first time in a long time.

Big commercial users of oil, like refineries, trucking companies and airlines, are holding just slightly more "short" contracts - contracts where they are betting the price of oil will fall - than "long" contracts, according to Addison Armstrong, director of market research at Tradition Energy Futures, an energy brokerage based in Stamford, Conn.

Previously, non-commercial users had been betting prices would fall, and much of the runup in oil prices over the last few months was a result of them selling or closing out those short contracts and buying long ones, said Armstrong.

Meanwhile, non-commercial users - like banks and pension funds - are holding just slightly more long positions. The market, said Addison, is pretty well balanced.

However, that doesn't mean we won't see more of the huge price swings of the last few days, swings that have come to characterize the oil market of late.

"I wouldn't bet on less volatility," said Armstrong.

Boss Approved. Napping at work!


Learn how we can tap into creativity and solve problems from our naps. Thomas Edison, Salvador Dali and Stephen King all used this technique.

read more | digg story

Why The iPhone and Smartphones is a Pandora's Box for Radio


Radio is Dead by super-structure

The following is also my column in Advertising Age next week.

All the talk about one medium replacing another, to date, has largely been just that - talk. Over time new formats tend to be additions in our lives, not replacements for something else. In the 80s, video did not kill the radio star, as the old Buggles song says. Rather MTV made it stronger.

Still, an era is dawning where some new media will, in fact, supplant others. Or, more likely, existing information we interact with daily will come from new players that harness the Internet, e.g. bloggers stealing eyeballs from journalists. It's a function of the attention crash. We can't keep adding media to our lives without reaching a saturation point.

While TV and print have been hemorrhaging, radio has remained more resilient in the digital age. It reaches 93% of the population for 18.5 hours per week, according to Arbitron. This is only down from 22 hours per week 10 years ago. The US - despite rising fuel prices - remains a car culture. We live in our automobiles and radio still rules here, despite the iPod invasion.

This, in part, is because radio serves as a powerful discovery engine for new music. However, the medium today is one-way. That's about to be change thanks to sophisticated mobile devices. The broadband-connected cell phone turns this experience into one that harnesses crowds to become far more personalized. All you need to do to see this yourself is to buy an iPhone and download some of the free streaming audio applications like Pandora or Last.fm.

The iPhone 3G and other smartphones like it will change how people access interact with audio. Already, the Pandora music discovery service is the fourth most popular application in the iTunes store. And bloggers like Jeff Jarvis believe that it will disrupt radio. I tend to agree.

The cellphone will change the radio landscape by not only establishing a two-way modality but by ushering in new models for advertising that are mapped to people's musical tastes and perhaps locally relevant as well thanks to GPS. This maybe one of the most promising mobile ad formats and is a space to watch.

Sega Says the iPhone Is As Powerful As the Dreamcast

Developers are just getting their heads around the concepts introduced by the iPhone, but so far they like what they see. EA said it's more powerful than the DS, and now Sega—the guys who made Super Monkey Ball for the platform—is saying that it's just as powerful as the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast! Do you remember how good that was? Soul Calibur? House of the Dead? Typing of the Dead? Shenmue? Those were some quality games. Who else wants some of that action in the next few years? [Kotaku]

Read More:


iPhone Apps We Like: Mocha VNC Lite

iPhone Apps We Like: Twitteriffic is Best Twitter App

The iPhone is More Powerful Than the DS, But Sucks As a Controller

EA iPhone Games Upgrades: Scrabble Getting Multiplayer, Tetris Getting Piece Drawing, Plus New games

Hamburgers Conquer Paris

In Paris, Burgers Turn Chic

Ed Alcock for The New York Times

Burgers and waiting diners at the Café Salle Pleyel.



Beginning a few years ago but picking up momentum in the past nine months, hamburgers and cheeseburgers have invaded the city.

read more | digg story

21 Trains That Are Cheaper Than Flying


Feature photo by Jim Frazier. Photo above by jpmueller99. Mile by mile, trains use 28% less fuel than planes or cars.


If your next flight is short, you might want to consider taking a train instead. We’ve pulled the prices of 21 low cost train routes that beat their lowest-priced airline competitor. To do this, we’ve used a standard set of dates for a Saturday to Saturday roundtrip ticket (to make it fair) and the prices below are accurate at the time of writing.

read more | digg story

The 14 Best '70s Guitar Solos


Between Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the guitar solo is experiencing a renaissance. (Or at least appreciation of the guitar solo is experiencing a renaissance)...

read more | digg story

12 Best Hotels for an Affair


Not that we condone such behavior, but if you're going to participate in a little extracurricular fun, here are 12 hotels with no paparazzi, overzealous staffers, or lobby crowds to spoil the fun.

read more | digg story

Facebook, MySpace Ignore Location On iPhone At Their Peril


Facebook and MySpace, the two largest social networks, eagerly launched new iPhone applications last Friday. Both quickly shot up the the top apps list. But while both applications are useful for heavy users, they won’t drive new users to the services because they failed to leverage the killer iPhone feature - location awareness.

read more | digg story

Water, Water Everywhere on Mars

By Brandon Keim

Mustard_nilifossae
MarswaterThe red planet was once awash in water, say scientists -- not boiling water, but benign seas that may have been suitable for life.

"There was apparently pervasive water present during the first 600 to 700 million years," said Brown University geologist John Mustard, co-author of a paper scheduled to be published today in Nature.

Mustard's team studied data returned by the Compact Reconnaisance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, an instrument designed to find traces of minerals that interact with water.

Earlier studies have found evidence of ancient gushers, and the Mars Phoenix Lander recently found ice. But Mustard's analysis provides the clearest picture yet of planet-wide hydrological impacts -- and, most tantalizingly, CRISM showed widespread deposits of clay-like minerals that form only at relatively low temperatures.

Ancient Martian oceans may have been salty, but at least they weren't boiling. And perhaps, said Mustard, they weren't dead.

"I think the prospects for present life were dim, but for past life, during this habitable era, they were really quite good," he said.

As for whether evidence of life will remain after four billion years, Mustard said that "it's probably better-preserved on Mars than on the Earth, where plate tectonics has recycled the crust."

He continued, "On Mars, many more elements from that early history are still present. And we do think whiffs of life are preserved in the Earth record, so I think Mars stands a good chance of preserving signatures, if they ever existed."

Hydrated silicate minerals on Mars observed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter CRISM instrument
[Nature] [not yet online]

Images: Courtesy of John Mustard and Nature; deposits of clay-like phyllosilicates, which preserve a record of past interactions between water and rock, appear in color.

Yahoo tells Microsoft 33 a share will get it done

Just in case you didn’t catch it the first time, Yahoo (YHOO) is saying again that it’s now willing to sell itself to Microsoft (MSFT) for $33 a share. The Internet giant said in a letter to shareholders Thursday that the current board, which faces a challenge from a slate backed by dissident shareholder Carl Icahn, “continues to work to maximize value for you.”

The letter says Yahoo would sell itself or its search business to Microsoft, and is considering a spinoff of its Asia assets and return of cash to shareholders. But any deal would have to provide “real value to our stockholders,” Yahoo adds. The company also castigates Microsoft and Icahn for what it calls their “conflicting and confusing statements.”

Of course, there’s been no shortage of confusion in this deal. As Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky pointed out Monday, when Yahoo first made note of its desire to sell at $33, “That’s a price it easily could have gotten in February but one that Microsoft doesn’t appear willing to pay today.” Maybe both sides just like all the attention they’re getting more than they like the prospect of an actual deal. Yahoo shares, after closing at $22.48 Wednesday, traded as high as $23.80 in premarket action Thursday

Can a Hummer H2 get better mileage than a Mini?

The different classifications of idiots on American roads are as countless as Mini Cooper options, Mustang special editions, or the list of ways you might die — which, ironically, includes idiot drivers. Among our favorites are the guy we once saw playing a trumpet while driving, but that was before hypermiling came on the scene.

Hypermiling, of course, is the practice of being a self-centered, traffic-jamming prick. It also supposedly saves gas. We'll address the techniques later on, as there are many. Most hypermilers start with a vehicle that's already efficient, like a Toyota Prius or a Honda Insight, and the most dedicated members of this cult have claimed EPA-shattering numbers of over 100 mpg. Most say they see an improvement of 30 to 40 percent over the figures published for their cars.

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We at Motive are firm believers in going big or going home. If two main effects of hypermiling are the naked aggression one inspires other drivers and a high-percentage economy increase, why not start with a vehicle everyone hates already — and more importantly, one for which a single mile-per-gallon increase represents a ten percent improvement? Yes, the Hummer H2 is a hypermiler's dream. Plus, with $4.50-per-gallon fuel, suffering dealers will practically give you one.

We secured a special-edition "Ultra Marine" H2 for a week to see what gains we could get by faithfully following the hypermiling bible. But that's only half the story, because we had more questions — questions such as, "Will a big truck driven efficiently deliver better mpg than a small car with a leadfoot at the helm?" That's where the new Mini Cooper Clubman comes in.

For a fair comparison, we have set up a test course that starts at a gas station near Wrigley Field on Chicago's north side, winds through the gridlock of downtown, then shoots out Interstate 290 toward the southwest suburb of Naperville. The 40-mile loop ends with five miles of suburban byways leading back to Motive HQ. We will start with full tanks and refill at the end, calculate the averages, and see if we can't get the Mini to chug more fuel than the Hummer, counting middle fingers along the way.

The Hummer isn't fit to win this battle in its current condition. I browse its options list but instead of prices I see weights. Limited Edition Package: 300 pounds; Luxury Package: 200 pounds; Chromey-Chrome Chrome Package: 200 pounds. I don't need the Ultra Marine Edition, I need a Colin Chapman Edition. (Squint hard enough and the Hummer's green paint almost looks like BRG!) So I get to work leveling the playing field, pulling off extraneous bits and weighing them as I go. Drawing the line at things I'd surely break in the process of removing, I shave the following off the H2:

* Rear-mounted Spare Wheel/Tire: 102 pounds
* Spare Tire Carrier Frame: 97 pounds
* Two Third-Row Seats: 90 pounds
* Two Chrome Step Bars: 34 pounds
* Tools, Floormats, and Nuts/Bolts: 24 pounds

hyper2_center.jpg

While the combined avoirdupois still wouldn't be enough to drop the 6600-pound Hummer into a testable EPA weight class, 347 pounds is nothing to sneeze at. Happy with my hack job, I hit the evening commute with confidence but am saddened when I arrive home, 22 miles later, with the dash readout telling me I've achieved just 10.2 mpg. "It's alright," I tell myself, "tomorrow is a new day."

Despite what the rising sun tells me, tomorrow is not a new day. I arrive at the starting line of my test route and hop out, still sipping on my morning coffee. "That thing sure is big," the BP station attendant tells me, disrupting the chanting of my mantra ("My foot is a feather... My foot is a feather..."). I want to scream "Thank you, Captain Obvious!" and toss my Starbucks in his face, but I resist. He continues.

"What's it cost to fill that up?"

"I don't know... it isn't mine and I've never put gas in it," I tell him, trying to kill the conversation.

"So a man just gives you this thing and says you can drive it, just so long as you put gas back in it? Man, with that thing, I don't know if I'd take that deal." The pump clicks off. "Seventy-six dollars! Whew!"

hyper3_center.jpg

hyper4_right.gif

The first fuel-cutting measure I lay on the thirsty Hummer is, other than simply being shy with the throttle, the simplest — coasting in neutral whenever possible. This is the first step of a hypermiling technique called a forced autostop (FAS). That name comes from a hybrid's ability to turn its gas engine off in some situations ("autostop"), only here the driver kills the engine by keying back to the accessories position, hence the "forced." No running engine means no gas flow, which means infinite fuel economy any time the car's rolling under a FAS. That's, like, totally high, even by Prius standards. I'm able to execute a few complete FASs along the way, but a few factors are getting in my way.

The first is that Chicago's traffic system has all the rhythm and logic of an 11-year-old kid learning to play the drums. As such, I can't time my engine kills early enough to be worth pumping the juice to resuscitate the 6.2-liter gorilla V-8 under the hood. The few times I do kill it, having to wield over three tons of truck without power steering or power brakes makes me a little less eager to try it again. This move is illegal in a small car, and downright homicidal in an H2.

Further down the road, I don't even try hypermiling's holy grail of combining a forced autostop with pulse and glide. Pulse and glide is the practice of going faster than you intend to ("pulse"), only to coast along saving fuel until your speed's fallen too low ("glide"). For example, if I want to drive the H2 at an average speed of 50 mph, I'd instead bring it gently up to 60 mph and coast back down to 40 mph, then repeat. Only by the time I drop the Hummer's oversized shifter into neutral and grab the key to kill the engine, I'm already back down to 45 mph. The lower rolling resistance of my heightened tire pressures — 50 psi at all corners — should help, but then again, I'm riding on 305/60R20 Goodyear Wranglers. Plus, I'm wary of killing the Hummer at 60 mph — my earlier experiences without power steering already inspired a stop at a church to make sure the Big Guy and I are on good terms.

Back in the city, I'm battling with an average-fuel-economy readout that really wants to drop below 13.0 for the first time in the five miles I've covered, and the guy in the 5-series behind me is motioning with one finger that he wants me to throw in the towel. He uses a turn lane to cut around me, his engine bouncing off the limiter. Does the gas he just wasted count against my average?

In a perfect world I'd be "driving with load," or trying to stay locked into one mpg number, but the H2 doesn't have an instantaneous-economy readout. So instead I'm driving by ear. The Hummer sounds like an offshore race boat — I've set the radio to just the right level so that if I can hear the engine, I'm driving too hard. That level is, by my estimate, about 1/10th throttle. And most of the time it's effective. But occasionally, I barely miss a light and wonder if I'm really saving more gas than someone driving at a normal pace who would've made those lights and, as a result, would be spending less time in the H2 overall.

hyper5_center.jpg

By the time I break free of the city on I-290, I've developed a deep self-hatred that even my rising fuel economy can't cure. Moving at an embarrassing 45 mph in the right lane, I've managed to turn myself into a distasteful amalgam of a big-SUV driver and smug, economy-obsessed asswipe, simultaneously joining two gangs I never thought I'd run with. I may as well just plow myself into the back of the 18-wheeler I've been drafting for the past two miles. (Just think of the gas I'd save if I were hanging off of his rear end!) Still, I remain focused on my mission. Having ruled out forced autostops, there's little I can do on the highway to minimize my fuel usage. Chicago's skyscrapers exist as an aesthetic compensation for its lack of hills, so there's no opportunity to ask gravity for a hand. Large trucks are the only things worth drafting and three of those have already brake-checked me. I set the cruise at 50 mph and hope for the best.

Three miles from the finish line I've quit the brake pedal cold turkey. Stop signs mean less than my precious average, which the H2 says is sitting at 17.2 mpg. A few hills finally come along and a few neutral coasts push me over the speed limit for the first time, hoping to make it up the inclines without forcing the fuel pump back into service. It mostly works, but not well enough. By the time I roll into our office's favorite Shell, I've dropped to 17.1. At first I'm disappointed that I hadn't pushed the colossal beast past 20. I wanted to saunter up to Motive headquarters in my figurative spurs and cowboy hat, dragging a hog-tied Hummer behind me. "Boys, I've conquered the beast. Your town is safe," I'd declare over a long pull of Jim Beam before being carried off victoriously by a gang of Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. But 17.1? That doesn't exactly scream hero. Which is why I'm even more disappointed when I do a quick pumpside calculation. Over 39.9 miles the Hummer drank 2.713 gallons, meaning the trip computer is extra lenient: The real average was just 14.71 miles for each gallon of dino juice.

Still, our week with the H2 saw averages that danced between 8-12 indicated mpg. If normal drivers are getting around 10 mpg for combined city/highway trips (as mentioned above, the EPA doesn't quote numbers for beasts this big), that 14.71 is an improvement of almost 50 percent, even if the actual return is just five extra miles per gallon. But are those gains worth what I, and the people behind me, just went through? Personally, I think the effort and risk I would've avoided is worth more than the few bucks I saved, even if I did reduce the geopolitical importance of Kuwait.

The next morning I brew my coffee extra strong before saddling up for round two. With a manual-equipped Mini Cooper Clubman, I'm confident that the 1.6-liter four under the hood can be pushed to Hummer-beating inefficiency. I've even got a bit of the Hummer along for the ride with me — it wouldn't be fair to strip weight off the big truck and then leave the Mini stock, so I've crammed in as many H2 parts as the Clubman's rear will hold. That equates to two rear seats and one massive wheel/tire combo that hardly fits but is just too heavy and comical to leave behind. In all, the Clubman's carrying an extra 192 pounds. It's also wet and rainy in Chicago, which should be good for wheelspin without forward progress. Time to see how conspicuous a Mini's consumption can be.

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My friend at the BP doesn't even notice me today, so I bid farewell by laying a strip of rubber out onto Addison Street. My tactics will be to reverse everything I tried yesterday, except that I'll continue to use neutral. Only this time, dropping the transmission out of gear will allow me to rev the engine any time traffic isn't letting me to do so under load. I'm holding every gear to 6000 rpm and dropping down a cog as soon as it's possible. Every moving piece of the car hates me, but every little bit counts. From Wrigley Field to downtown, I'm averaging a guzzler-ific 13.2 mpg.

What's better, I don't feel as guilty as I did in the Hummer, despite the fact that my technique would give an EPA agent a heart attack. By turning the throttle into a light switch and passing slower drivers in turn lanes, I'm doing nothing more than getting out of the way of everyone else. By blocking traffic with the Hummer I was ruining the mornings of countless city drivers. Maybe someone was fired because I made him late, and maybe that man's boss had a short fuse that ran out when he got stuck behind some ass driving a Hummer at half the posted limit. The anger channeled toward the Hummer was exponential: Everyone hated both the truck itself and the way it was being driven. I'm driving the Mini like Ed Norton's chasing me in a helicopter and the only person who notices is the guy in the GTI who tries to race me around the curve on Upper Wacker.

Again, the freeway is getting in the way of my success. But unlike yesterday, I can't do anything to keep the Mini chugging. My ears are buzzing with the vibrations of an engine spinning a constant 6000 rpm, the smelly air outside is whipping in through the open windows, and my feet are going numb from the air conditioning. I've had more relaxing experiences on a Jet Ski. And it's all for naught, because the little orange readout below the tach keeps climbing, and my average now breaking past the 20.0 mpg mark. Nothing is going to change it — the Mini's just too efficient on the highway. Even stuck in thick traffic, my evening commute later in the day would return an average of over 32 mpg.

Exiting the highway has never felt so good, so I celebrate by bouncing off the rev limiter through the off-ramp. Then it's time to cheat a little. Instead of taking the main roads to the finish line, I opt to weave the Mini through residential streets loaded with stop signs and angry mothers. My average is dropping and for the first time today I feel like people really despise my Cooper and me. But neither effort is enough — the gas station greets me with a 21.4 mpg average and a "cool car" comment from Mr. Accord at the next pump. The Mini's calculator is wrong, though. My math says I've only averaged 19.0 mpg. Not low enough to make a Hummer feel special, but close.

hyper8_center.jpg So what have I learned, other than the fact that manufacturers tune their trip computers to be extra generous? Well, that it's hard to make people hate you in a Mini, but it is even harder to make them like you in a Hummer. Drive a Mini hard and people will just smile, excepting of course the suburban housemoms who'll yell at anything that looks or sounds fast. But tread lightly with a Hummer and people won't be commending your effort. They'll honk, scream, flail, and flash lights, then buzz past with enough fuel-burning rage to cancel out the H2's savings. I also learned that the only way a Cooper will ever burn more gas than Hummer is if the Mini's driven hard through city streets while the H2 cruises at 50 mph on an Interstate. And that isn't a fair comparison.

Of the two driving techniques, hypermiling is arguably the more sinful. Driving fast, while still dangerous, fuel-swilling, and illegal, doesn't impact other drivers (so long as you don't hit them). We'd dare to call it the selfless act of getting away from everyone else's commute. Hypermiling impacts entire packs of cars and probably causes more community-wide fuel consumption than it saves for one person, plus people hate you for getting in their way. Especially when you're doing it in one of the country's largest passenger vehicles.

`Clone Wars' revives old-style `Star Wars' fun ( slight Spoilers)

By David Germain

AP Movie Writer / July 17, 2008

SAN RAFAEL, Calif.—A tinge of Anakin Skywalker's coming dark side clearly is visible in "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." Yet the animated adventure mostly harks back to the fun, swashbuckling times of the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

Lucasfilm Animation, which screened the movie Tuesday for The Associated Press in advance of its Aug. 15 theatrical release, has crafted a movie nicely tucked in to Anakin's early heroic days, before his transformation into the evil Darth Vader.

Along for the ride are noble-hearted clone soldiers with the camaraderie of Marine grunts, inept android warriors as idiotic as the Three Stooges and a young protege who rivals Anakin for cockiness and affectionately calls him "Sky Guy."

Dave Filoni, director of the movie and supervising director for "The Clone Wars" animated TV show debuting this fall on TNT and the Cartoon Network, said the idea was to return to the wisecracking tone of the original "Star Wars" in 1977, before the gloom of Anakin's fall.

"I wanted this to have the banter. I wanted this to be funny," Filoni said in an interview at Skywalker Ranch, home to Lucasfilm Animation, a division of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas' filmmaking empire. "Telling that dark story of Anakin Skywalker was important for George, but this was a chance to show Anakin before that. Anakin as a hero, Anakin as the good guy, Anakin more like his son," Luke Skywalker, of the original trilogy.

The Anakin in "Clone Wars" is a hybrid of Luke and his rascally ally, Han Solo, Filoni said.

"He's cocky like Han, he can do a lot of things like Han, he's clever with machines like Han. But he's naive like Luke. The whole galaxy is a bit overwhelming," Filoni said.

The movie presents all of the key characters from Anakin's world: Jedi masters Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mace Windu and Yoda; Anakin's future wife Padme Amidala; androids R2-D2 and C-3PO; gangster Jabba the Hutt; villain Count Dooku; and Palpatine, the galaxy's evil emperor in waiting.

Characters not seen in the live-action movies include conniving assassin Asajj Ventress; Jabba's sinister uncle, a giant slug that speaks with a Truman Capote-like Southern drawl; and Captain Rex, a loyal member of Anakin's clone crew.

The main newcomer is Ahsoka Tano, a teenage girl from an exotic alien species who's assigned as Anakin's Jedi apprentice. With mischievous wit, Ahsoka breaks down Anakin's stiff facade and reluctance to take on a student, the two establishing a flippant rapport as they slice up droids with their light-sabers, scale a daunting summit on a rescue mission and play nursemaid to Jabba's kidnapped baby son.

"She definitely brings a fun side out of Anakin. I think they have such a great relationship," said Ashley Eckstein, who provides Ahsoka's voice. "Ahsoka is very eager to prove herself, and I don't think she would allow Anakin not to accept her."

The movie offers a glimpse of the inner turmoil that contributes to Anakin's turn to the dark side. Crash-landing on his home planet of Tatooine, Anakin momentarily bears a haunted look as he's asked about the desert world, where he exacted a savage revenge over the death of his mother in "Attack of the Clones."

"I was hoping I'd never have to lay eyes on this dustball again," Anakin says.

Opening with a variation on John Williams' familiar "Star Wars" theme, the movie is heavy on humor. Anakin devises an amusing low-tech way for him and Ahsoka to sneak inside a droid energy shield. Obi-Wan engages in a witty surrender negotiation with a general who speaks in a Sean Connery brogue. When a droid falls off a cliff and smashes on the ground, his superior leans over and barks, "Get back here, sergeant."

A few veteran "Star Wars" performers provide voices for the movie, including Samuel L. Jackson as Mace, Christopher Lee as Dooku and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. Taking over from Hayden Christensen as the voice of Anakin is Matt Lanter, while James Arnold Taylor does Obi-Wan, who was played by Ewan McGregor in the prequel trilogy.

Anakin remains a bit rash, but he has graduated from apprenticeship to Obi-Wan to take the lead on his own missions as an equal to his former master.

"With this movie and also the ongoing series, we're going to see the banter between Obi-Wan and Anakin. We're going to see them as comrades, as buddies," Lanter said. "It is reminiscent of some of the original `Star Wars.' It's got that comic relief in it and has kind of that old-school feeling."

Mentioned briefly in the first "Star Wars," the Clone Wars are depicted fleetingly in "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith," the second and third episodes in the prequel trilogy.

The new movie and the TV show take place in the three years between those films, as the Jedi lead the galactic republic's clone army against the robot forces of a separatist movement headed by Dooku.

It was a murky epoch in the "Star Wars" universe, ripe with stories about Anakin and other central figures but also minor characters and new ones never seen before.

"That was the impetus of that, this whole period of time we could run around in,"

Lucas said in an interview earlier this year.

Lucas initially planned just a TV show. But as he viewed the first footage, "he said, `This looks great. The fans should really see this on the big screen,'" said Filoni, who came to "Clone Wars" after working on the animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

Filoni and his collaborators reshaped a story arc developed for the series into a stand-alone tale they could tell as a theatrical movie.

The computer animation borrows from the striking panoramas of Japanese anime, while the characters have a chiseled look and movements vaguely reminiscent of the 1960s puppet adventure series "Thunderbirds."

Though animated, the world is recognizably "Star Wars," from Yoda's twitching frowns to the hum of the light-sabers.

"A lot of people have said to me that have seen it -- well, the few people that have seen it at this point -- that they feel like they're watching `Star Wars,'" Filoni said. "They feel like they're seeing those characters again. Even though we've done this style that's painterly, if you want to call it that, it's still `Star Wars.'"

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