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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Washington Mutual reports $3.3 Billion loss for Quarter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Washington Mutual reported a $3.3 billion quarterly loss Tuesday -- far worse than Wall Street was anticipating -- as it set aside more money for bad loans.

The Seattle-based thrift reported a net loss of $6.58 a share, which included a charge related to a $7 billion capital raise the company announced in April.

Excluding the charge, WaMu reported a loss of $3.34 a share. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were expecting the nation's largest savings and loan to report a loss of $1.05 a share on this basis.

Just a year ago, the company reported a profit of $830 million, or 92 cents a share.

Shares of Washington Mutual (WM, Fortune 500), however, gained 9% in after-hours trading on the news, after finishing the session more than 6% higher.

As the housing market has worsened, so have WaMu's fortunes.

Including Tuesday's results, the Seattle-based thrift has reported three consecutive quarterly losses. Scrambling for cash, the firm has cut its dividend twice, shut down some of its key business units and trimmed its payroll.

In April, WaMu announced a plans to raise $7 billion by selling an equity stake to an investment group led by the private-equity firm TPG.

Concerns about WaMu's fate surfaced again last week after Lehman Brothers analyst Bruce Harting wrote in a research note he suggested the company would report $26 billion in cumulative losses when the company delivered its quarterly results, and would have to "substantially" raise its loan loss reserves as a result.

Those concerns were compounded by comments from Ladenburg Thalmann analyst Richard Bove, who warned that WaMu is on the edge of the "danger zone."

That spooked WaMu investors, who were already fearing further bank failures following the high-profile collapse of the California-based mortgage lender IndyMac just days earlier.

WaMu issued a statement later that day stressing it was well capitalized with more than $40 billion in excess liquidity.

The latest figures from WaMu come just hours after the Charlotte-N.C.-based Wachovia (WB, Fortune 500) booked a nearly $9 billion loss.

WaMu's results also come at the tail end of what has been a tumultuous round of second-quarter earnings reports for the nation's banks.

A number of large financial institutions, most notably Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500), reported quarterly figures that, while not good, still managed to beat analysts' expectations. To top of page

Wachovia reports $9 billion loss

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New Lotus Evora breaks cover- for the MacDaddy





3.5-litre 276bhp Toyota V6, 2+2 seating, GT levels of refinement and usability, and a £45K starting price. We get an exclusive look at the Lotus Evora and the company's exciting future

It has to look like a Lotus but still move the game on

There’s an infectious buzz around Lotus’s Hethel HQ. The all-new Lotus Evora is a fortnight away from its first public airing and the team behind it are clearly confident that they’ve achieved something special. It’s not smugness exactly, but equally no-one here looks the slightest bit anxious about what the waiting world will think of their baby.

And this time the whole planet really will be watching, for the Evora will be Lotus’s first truly global product, having been designed to achieve type approval from South America to China and everywhere in between. The car formerly known by its ‘Eagle’ codename is the most important Lotus since the Elise was unveiled 13 years ago and heralds the marque’s return to the GT market. For the men from Potash Lane and Lotus enthusiasts alike these are momentous days.

When we arrived for our sneak preview of the 2+2 mid-engined coupe there was a genuine crackle of excitement about the place as they made their last preparations before the London Motor Show unveiling. After two years of hard work and secret development, the wraps will shortly be tugged off the car that heralds a new era for Lotus, one where it will no longer be dependent on the ageing Elise platform and instead move towards a three-model line-up that will eventually include the new Esprit (see panel, p25). Lotus is targeting 2000 sales per annum for the Evora, with a starting price of £45,000 rising to just over £50K.

If first impressions count, then all that confidence is not misplaced: I reckon the Evora will bowl over the ExCeL crowds. It’s striking from every angle. The tension in the lines and curves is pure Lotus and the proportions just so, a remarkable achievement when you consider that behind the front chairs are two further seats, a transverse 3.5-litre V6 Toyota engine and a boot large enough to swallow a set of golf clubs.

‘We didn’t actually design it with the clichéd clubs in mind,’ says Russell Carr, the project’s chief designer, as he walks us around the full-size clay buck. ‘There are no golfers here.’

The initial sketches were penned in August 2006. ‘Our brief at that time was simple and clear,’ Carr continues. ‘We had to create a visually stunning car that had everyday useability and plus-two capability. The looks were the biggest challenge; first and foremost buying a Lotus has to be an emotional purchase, so despite the necessity for a longer wheelbase and higher roof-line it had to still look like a great sports car rather than a passenger carrier. The extra practicality has to be a bonus that doesn’t compromise the sense of purpose. We have an extraordinarily talented team of engineers working on dynamics so our job was to show that none of that driver focus had been lost through adding seats.

‘It has to look like a Lotus but still move the game on. It couldn’t be retro but had to incorporate heritage elements, so it begins with the squashed Lotus ‘mouth’ – which can be traced back to the 25 of the ’60s – and everything flows from there. Top speed and motorway driving are more important with the Evora than the Elise, so smooth aerodynamics to keep the airflow attached were vital for efficiency. That meant we couldn’t use the Coke-bottle lines, but we still had to keep everything taut and maintain the feeling that the bodywork has been stretched over the mechanicals. And do all that while appealing to a wider market of drivers by making it useable for everyday living.’

A number of visual tricks that have been used to disguise the extra practicalities: the larger rear wheels (19in at the back with 18in fronts as standard) and the long front and short rear overhangs are designed to suggest movement even when the car is stationary, while the wrap-around ‘visor-screen’ and the crossover line where the side-glass meets the rear screen disguise the height of the roof.

Carr makes no apologies for the awkwardness of access with the Elise, describing it as part of the race-car experience. The Evora, however, is not primarily a trackday tool and therefore has a higher opening line at the top of the door so you don’t have to duck to get in. Similarly the sill is lower and narrower and the seat sits some 65mm higher off the floor than in the Elise. It all improves access to the cockpit – and comfort when you’re in there. For the first time the 6ft 5in frame of CEO Mike Kimberley will comfortably fit behind the wheel of one of his own cars. ‘Either Mike was going to fit or one of us was no longer going to fit in the company,’ laughs Carr.

The London show car is still being assembled during our visit – or rather it’s being converted from one of the 19 first-stage prototypes (all of which were built on the production line to hone tooling and build techniques) – preventing us from either photographing it or climbing inside. I can report, however, that those larger doors close with a satisfying, Audi-esque thunk.

There’s also an interior buck to try for size while its designer, Anthony Bushell, guides me round. The Recaro seats are a little larger than those in the Elise and there’s more shoulder room between the driver and front seat passenger, while the dash is formed from leather and aluminium – ‘proper materials’ as Bushell puts it. Even on this mock-up there’s a quality feel, all the switches are edge-lit to replicate those found on top-end hi-fi systems and a central touch-screen will operate all radio and sat-nav controls.

The interior configuration apes the themes and lines of the exterior with a ‘floating’ centre console and a contrasting band that runs from the dash right around the cabin and across the rear seats. These sculpted pews are similar in size to those found in the back of a 911 (you get the feeling the team have spent a lot of time looking at the 911 even though they claim the closest competitor is the Cayman). It means they’re large enough for children (and will have Isofix fittings) or for an adult to travel a short journey sitting sideways. If you think they’re a waste of time, you can have your Evora as a two-seater (Lotus calls this option the Plus Zero).

Chassis next, and vehicle architect Richard Rackham is on hand to explain the exposed underpinnings of the show car. The Evora shares the bonded aluminium technology that Rackham pioneered on the Elise, but unlike that 13-year-old design it’s built in three independent modules: a central tub and sections for the front and rear. This not only saves money when it comes to crash repairs, it also makes construction quicker and more efficient, as these parts can be built simultaneously and independently. Chassis rigidity is another boon: Rackham says the Evora is two and half times stiffer than the Elise. And the added versatility of building the structure in three sections makes it easier to fit a variety of powerplants in the future.

At 2575mm, the wheelbase is only 275mm longer than its little brother and into that they’ve squeezed 75mm of extra seat travel, those rear perches and a considerably bigger power unit.

The 3.5-litre Toyota V6 is just the start for the Evora. Future options include hybrid power, while Kimberley is very enthusiastic about the Lotus-built Tesla. ‘You can’t ignore the environmental issue,’ he says. ‘Chapman’s ethos of lightweight, efficient sports cars has always kept us ahead of the game in that respect. It’s our job to continue to be innovative and combine that with a car that is friendly yet entertaining to drive.’ CO2 emissions are low: Lotus quotes less than 225 g/km for the VVTi engine running under the command of its own ECU. Helped by a drag co-efficient of just 0.337, the Evora returns above 30mpg on the combined cycle.

Right now the team are keeping tight-lipped about performance: 0-60mph is said to be in the sub-five second bracket. Kerb weight is estimated at 1350kg (split 39/61 per cent front/rear) if you go easy on the options. With a surprisingly modest 276bhp on tap from the 3456cc V6, that gives a power-to-weight figure just below that of the Cayman S.

Recent tests at the Nürburgring have enthused Kimberley even further, the unflappability and strong performance of the four-pot AP Racing brakes having been a particular highlight. All Evoras will have stability control, but pressing the Sport button just to the right of the steering wheel will allow for a greater slip angle before it intervenes or alternatively it can be switched off completely.

The first cars will all come with the regular Toyota six-speed manual, but one of the first developments will be a US-friendly auto box with steering wheel paddles. Other future developments will include a race car, so expect a GT challenger sometime soon, plus further more extreme derivatives and a convertible. All these models are to sit alongside the £70K-plus range-topping and platform-sharing Esprit, due to be with us in around three years from now.

Following the motor show there will be a phase of verification testing and final refinement before the first cars are delivered at the very end of the year. As I turn to leave, Mike Kimberley promises us an Evora drive soon. Exciting times indeed.

Two Fed myths that need debunking

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- There are two things you may have heard about the Federal Reserve Board, both of which are wrong.

The first is that the Fed controls U.S. interest rates.

The second is that the Fed has made so many commitments that it's in danger of running out of cash or Treasury securities. Which would mean it couldn't carry out its declared policy of putting cash into the world financial system or its undeclared policy of keeping institutions that it deems worthy afloat. Let me show you why both of these beliefs are myths, not reality.

Let's do interest rates first. It's the more common myth, created partly by sloppiness among people in my business who write (and say) things like, "The Fed cut interest rates today."

In fact, we should always insert "short-term" before "interest rates" when we talk about the Fed's control. That because the Fed controls only some short-term rates, primarily the so-called Federal funds rate that financial institutions charge each other for overnight loans. The financial markets set long-term rates, which often don't move in the same direction as the Fed funds rate.

The case in point: the relationship - or lack of one - between the Fed funds rate and the interest rate on long-term mortgages.

Since September, the Fed has reduced the Fed funds rate by 62% - to 2% from the previous 5.25%. But long-term mortgage rates are higher than on Sept. 18, when the Fed began its rate cuts, as you can see from the adjacent graphic, which is based on numbers from mortgage experts HSH Associates.

The rate on a 30-year fixed-rate conforming mortgage - "conforming" means that the mortgage is eligible for sale to mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500) or Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500) - was 6.44% the week before the Fed's first cut, and was recently 6.51%. Jumbo mortgages - mortgages too big to be considered conforming - were going for 7.63%, up from 7.26%. (All of these numbers include up-front points that borrowers pay, in addition to their basic interest rate.)

The Fed and Treasury - along with many of the world's big financial players - would love to have U.S. mortgage rates decline, because that would lend support to home prices, which could use it.

Falling home values - what we have in most U.S. housing markets - increase foreclosures, which increase borrowers' pain and lenders' losses. The declining value of houses as collateral for mortgages makes mortgage lenders less eager to lend, and makes potential home purchasers far less eager to buy. It's a vicious cycle that will end sooner or later - everything does - but it's not something that the Fed (or any individual regulator or player) can control.

The Fed cut short-term rates to help mitigate the panics that have been sweeping the world financial markets for more than a year. In addition, those lower rates - in theory, at least - help prop up the U.S. economy.

But you can also argue that the Fed's lowering of short-term rates has raised inflation fears and contributed to the decline of the dollar in international markets, which in turn has affected commodities prices, whose massive increases are a major factor in U.S. inflation. So repeat after me: the Fed can set only short-term rates. Which may contribute to having long-term rates act in ways that the Fed didn't intend, and doesn't particularly like.

Can the Fed afford it?

There's an idea out there that the Fed may run out of money or government securities as a result of the huge, high-dollar programs that it and the Treasury have launched, or could end up having to launch, to keep financial markets afloat.

Fed chief Ben Bernanke and his crew have recently embarked on two programs that have raised questions about how it can afford its commitments. First, it will now lend directly not just to commercial banks, but also to institutions, like investment banks. Second, it will now lend selected borrowers Treasury securities (which they can then sell or borrow against) in return for securities (like some mortgage-backed bonds) that can't be sold or borrowed against for anything close to their stated value.

The worry is that the Fed owns only about $800 billion of Treasury securities, and all these existing programs, not to mention possibly helping arrange huge loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under a bailout plan now being kicked around, would consume a total of more than $800 billion.

But that worry overlooks the Fed's amazing power to create as much money as it needs - out of nothing, as it were.

Here's how it works. If an institution borrows, say, $50 billion from the Fed, the Fed can just post a $50 billion credit to the bank's account at the Fed, and the borrower can spend that balance on whatever it wants. It is indeed as if the Fed created cash out of nothing.

And if the Fed somehow needed more than $800 billion of Treasury securities, it could buy them in the open market, and deposit the payment for them in the seller's Fed account. That way, the Fed could lay its hands on however many Treasury securities it needed.

Yes, I'll grant you that this sounds odd. But if you ask a Fednik how this all works, he (or she) would tell you what I've just told you. Except that it would be dressed up in fancier language, with all sorts of explanations of how the Fed can do all this and still carry out its monetary policy.

Why am I bothering you with this stuff in mid-summer, a time when I'd rather be off drinking something cold than trying to deal with the Fed?

Because myths get in the way of understanding. And if there were ever a time when understanding the Fed's powers - and limitations - matters, that time is now. To top of page

Terabyte storage for cell phones


Little bits: Copper wires the size of viruses, like those shown here, could be the key to a new type of memory chip.
Credit: Chakku Gopalan

A new type of memory technology could lead to thumb drives or digital-camera memory cards that store a terabyte of information--more than most hard drives hold today. The first examples of the new technology, which could also slash energy consumption by more than 99 percent, could be on the market within 18 months.

"It's a radically new technology," says Michael Kozicki, a professor of electrical engineering at the Arizona State University, whose group is one of several working on a version of the new memory. "If it really works as well as everybody thinks it could, it could genuinely revolutionize the memory and storage industry."

The new type of memory, called programmable-metallization-cell (PMC) memory, or nano-ionic memory, has been under development at the Arizona State University and at companies such as Sony and IBM. It's one of a new generation of experimental technologies that are bidding to replace hard drives, the nonvolatile "flash" memory used in portable electronics, and the dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) in personal computers. The first ionic-memory prototypes were far too slow for practical use. But recently, researchers have demonstrated that materials structured at the nanoscale could yield ionic-memory devices that are much faster. Nano-ionic memory is significantly faster than flash memory, and the speed of some experimental cells has rivaled that of DRAM, which is orders of magnitude faster than flash.

The memory could also prove easy to make. Recently, the Arizona group published work demonstrating that nano-ionic memory can be made from materials conventionally used in computer memory chips and microprocessors. That could make it easier to integrate with existing technologies, and it would mean less retooling at factories, which would appeal to manufacturers.

Another reason that ionic memory is attractive is that it uses extremely low voltages, so it could consume as little as a thousandth as much energy as flash memory. In theory, it could also achieve much higher storage densities--bits of information per unit of surface area--than current technologies can.

These attractions are largely the result of a new mechanism for storing information. Flash memory stores bits of information as electrical charge, but the smaller the memory cells that hold the bits, the less charge they can hold, and the less reliable they become. The new memory stores information by rearranging atoms to form stable, and potentially extremely small, memory cells. What's more, each cell could potentially store multiple bits of information, and the cells can be layered on top of each other, increasing the memory's storage density to the point that it might rival that of the densest form of memory today: hard drives.

Each memory cell consists of a solid electrolyte sandwiched between two metal electrodes. The electrolyte is a glasslike material that contains metal ions. Ordinarily, the electrolyte resists the flow of electrons. But when a voltage is applied to the electrodes, electrons bind to the metal ions, forming metal atoms that cluster together. These atoms form a virus-sized filament that bridges the electrodes, providing a path along which electrical current can flow. Reversing the voltage causes the wire to "dissolve," Kozicki says. The highly resistive state of the electrolyte and the other, low-resistance, state can be used to represent zeroes and ones. Because the metal filament stays in place until it's erased, nano-ionic memory is nonvolatile, meaning that it doesn't require energy to hold on to information, just to read it or write it.

A thumb drive that stored a terabyte of information, however, would have to take advantage of two other characteristics of nano-ionic memory, Kozicki says. First, it would have to store more than one bit of information per memory cell. Once the wire inside the cell forms, it's possible to apply a voltage again, causing more atoms to form, thickening the wire and further decreasing resistance. Successive jolts will thicken the wire yet more, and the different states of resistance could be used to store multiple bits of information per wire.

What's more, this type of memory can be stacked up in layers, since it's not necessary for each cell to be in contact with a base layer of silicon, as is the case with some other types of memory. Combining multiple bits per cell with multiple layers could make it possible to form extraordinarily dense memory, Kozicki says.

William Gallagher, a senior manager for exploratory nonvolatile-memory research at IBM Research, says that nano-ionic memory is one of several promising next-generation memory technologies. These include MRAM, which stores information using magnetic fields, and phase-change memory, which stores information in a way similar to that used to store bits on DVDs. Gallagher says that ionic memory's competitors have a head start on it. MRAM chips are already sold for some special applications, such as devices that will be exposed to harsh environments. But MRAM may also prove better for high-speed memory applications than as a replacement for flash, so it may not compete directly with nano-ionic memory. Samsung, however, could be selling a phase-change-based flash-replacement memory within a year.

Still, nano-ionic memory may not be far behind. A few companies have licensed nano-ionic-memory technology developed at the Arizona State University. These include Qimonda, based in Germany; Micron Technologies, based in Boise, ID; and a Bay Area stealth-mode startup. The startup is well on the way to producing its first memory devices, which Kozicki says could be available within 18 months. These first chips, however, won't rival hard drives in memory density, he says.

The new technology could nevertheless have difficulty winning wide adoption. Flash-type memory continues to improve and may do so for a few more generations of products. Also, the best nano-ionic-memory prototypes have been made from materials that aren't used in conventional microchips, so manufacturing could be costly, at least initially. Kozicki's group recently demonstrated that ionic memory can be built from a combination of silicon dioxide and copper--materials that are compatible with conventional manufacturing. But these materials do not perform as well, which could make them less attractive than alternatives such as phase-change memory. For the new type of memory to succeed, it may be necessary to convince manufacturers to switch to new materials

The Low Down on Wind Power


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- High-profile personalities have been telling the nation to ditch that dirty fossil fuel and turn to renewable energy.

T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil man, has been hitting the airwaves pitching a plan to use wind to replace all the natural gas that's used to produce electricity, then using that saved natural gas to fuel cars.

In addition to weaning the nation from foreign oil, Pickens plan is not entirely altruistic. He's investing hundreds of millions of dollars on a giant wind farm in the Texas panhandle, and his hedge fund, BP Capital, is said to own stakes in several companies that equip cars to run on natural gas. If his energy efforts pan out, he could get even more rich in the process.

Then there's Al Gore. The former VP, then known as "Ozone Al" but now probably more famous for his Nobel-prize winning climate work, said last week that electricity generation should be completely fossil-fuel free in 10 years.

The question is, are these plans realistic or just dreams?

"It's not out of the realm of technical feasibility," said Chris Namovicz, a renewable energy analyst at the government's Energy Information Agency. "But they come with pretty significant price tags."

The order is indeed tall.

The nation currently relies on coal - the dirtiest of all fossil fuels - for 50% of its electricity production. Natural gas makes up about 21%, and nuclear comprises about 20%. Hydro and oil contribute a bit each as well, while traditional renewables - wind, solar, biomass and geothermal - ring in at only 3%, combined, according to EIA.

Pickens has a loosely detailed plan to replace the natural-gas produced electricity with wind energy. He says it could be done in 10 years.

"That is extremely aggressive," said Dave Hamilton, director for global warming and energy projects at the Sierra Club. "But it's in the right direction. It's a good thing we have an oilman saying we can't drill our way out of this problem."

Unpredictable wind

One of the big challenges with using wind to replace natural gas is that, unlike the steady flame from natural gas, the wind doesn't blow all the time.

To make sure enough power is available when the wind isn't blowing, back up generators would be needed, said Paul Fremont, an electric-utility analyst at the investment bank Jefferies & Co.

That could mean maintaining those natural gas plants in case of emergency, or implementing even more novel ideas like systems in Europe that use excess wind electricity to pump water uphill when the wind is blowing, then release it through hydro dams when the wind stops.

Either way, any type of back up system comes with a price.

"It's very costly, and very inefficient for society as a whole," said Fremont. "Policy makers will have to decide if the benefits are worth it."

The utility industry also has reservations about using wind on a large scale, again pointing to the fact that it doesn't blow all the time.

The Sierra Club's Becker downplayed the problem. While a challenge now, he said advances in the electricity grid will allow several wind farms from varying regions of the country to be tied together in the same grid, so that when some are idle others can make up the difference.

"The more we focus on how to get this done, the quicker we'll solve our problems," he said.

Another impediment to large-scale wind generation is a lack of turbines and infrastructure, said Hamilton. Companies like GE, India's Suzlon, Spain's Gamesa that make wind turbines aren't building enough wind turbines to meet demand because government tax credits offered to energy producers expire every two years. These tax credits are a big incentive for people to invest in wind energy - Pickens would net $60 million a year, according to Jefferies' Fremont, and is likely why he's currently pitching his plan to lawmakers.

Companies fear that if the tax credits aren't renewed they will be stuck with unwanted wind turbines if energy producers scale back their demand for wind power.

Also impeding the development of wind power is the fact that the government is unclear about how or whether it will regulate greenhouse gas emissions. If regulations were enacted, investments in wind energy would likely increase as utilities seek cleaner sources of power.

Wind farms could also benefit when companies or people buy carbon offsets - essentially payments to producers of clean energy and others who take steps in reducing greenhouse gasses.

Despite these challenges, wind power's ability to produce 21% of the nation's electricity needs isn't out of the question. While wind currently only makes up 0.8% of the country's total electricity production, and would need to grow well over 20 times that to replace gas, it's worth noting that wind capacity has increased 12 fold since 1990, according to EIA.

The second part of Pickens' plan - using natural gas to power vehicles - is perhaps easier.

While automakers are betting on electric cars as the vehicle of the future, those electric cars will still need back-up engines to recharge the battery on long trips, at least for the foreseeable future.

Those back up engines could run on natural gas, said Julius Pretterebner, a vehicles and alternative-fuels expert at Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Pretterebner also pointed to a host of other reasons why natural gas in cars is a good idea: It's about half as expensive as gasoline and 30% cleaner, the infrastructure to get it to service stations already exists, it's relatively cheap to convert existing cars ($500 to $2,000 a car, he said), and natural gas can be carbon neutral, if it's made from plants, a process he says requires no new technology.

"It's maybe the best alternative fuel we have, and the quickest way to get off foreign imports," he said.

As for Gore's call, there aren't any specific measures to analyze. But if Pickens' timetable is aggressive, Gore's is like Pickens' gone wild.

"It's completely impractical to imagine that we could totally wean ourselves off fossil fuels," said Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry's trade association.

Impractical, maybe. But using more renewables is certainly worth looking into. EIA estimates that by 2015, wind energy will cost 7 cents a kilowatt hour to produce, just a half cent more than coal or natural gas.

EIA says if strict greenhouse gas restrictions became law, renewables might go from 3% percent of the nation's electricity mix to around 25%. Coal, meanwhile, would likely go from over half to under a quarter. EIA said under the worst case scenario in bringing about this shift, electricity prices may double.

Given the dangers global warming may pose - U.N. scientists predict severe droughts and floods unless greenhouse gasses are drastically reduced - more expensive electricity may be a cost Americans are willing to bear. To top of page

OCZ's Neural Impulse Actuator


The flying car of control schemes
by Cyril Kowaliski — 11:05 AM on June 27, 2008

More than a year has passed since I first tried OCZ's Neural Impulse Actuator, and I've had the finished product in my possession for a good three weeks now, yet I'm still not sure how to tackle this review. Writing about something as peculiar and downright unique as the NIA is no easy task. To set the stage, I should probably discuss control systems in general.

For thousands of years now, man has used simple, relatively intuitive controls to make machines and animals do his bidding—be it squeezing his thighs to make a horse gallop faster, cranking a wheel and axle to draw water from a well, or flooring a car's gas pedal to run a red light. Applying mechanical force to get something done is second nature to most folks, and video games are no different. We use joysticks, gamepads, mice, keyboards, and other controllers to translate finger or limb movements into actions on the screen. Want to move your character left? Push the analog stick to the side. Want to fire? Squeeze the trigger. Easy.

What OCZ has done with the NIA is throw most of that out the window. By incorporating an electro-myogram, electro-encephalogram, and electro-oculogram into a small headband and a little black box with a USB connector, the company has developed a control system that can translate eye movements, facial muscle movements, and brain waves into game input. As a result, the NIA is a strange contraption that requires some very unusual participation from the user.

Walking with your jaw
When was the last time you used your jaw to control a machine? Unless you're Stephen Hawking or extremely lazy, you probably can't remember. How about using your eyes or your alpha brain waves? Didn't think so.

The NIA makes those things possible thanks to a headband with three diamond-shaped sensors positioned at the front. According to OCZ Technology Development Director Michael Schuette's article on the subject, the sensors are made of a plastic injected with highly conductive nanofibers, which the NIA hardware uses to read electrical potentials from the user's forehead. OCZ built the remainder of the headband out of soft rubber, with a lanyard at the back to allow for adjustment. A cable runs down the left side of the headband and plugs into the black NIA box, which includes two completely separate circuits: one hooked up to the headband and the other hooked up to the host PC's USB port. The two circuits only talk to each other through an optical transceiver, ensuring that users won't get electrical shocks if things go awry.

On the user's PC, the NIA control software converts electrical potentials from the headband into usable input. Schuette explains that the software separates the different frequencies in these potentials using proprietary algorithms not unlike fast Fourier transforms. Running these algorithms on a continuously streaming flow of data can apparently hog some "serious CPU cycles," although we didn't see the control application eat up much more than 10-15% of our test rig's Core 2 Duo E6400.

At this point, you might be wondering just how the NIA actually interfaces with games. OCZ's solution to that problem is quite clever: when it enters the game mode, the NIA app simply translates inputs into keystrokes. You can hit CTRL-F12 to enable and disable the input system in order to avoid any accidental key presses in setup screens, but in theory, the NIA should work with almost any game. That's quite convenient for such a novel device, even if Schuette says it could be done better:

Even though this still works – with a certain amount of sluggishness, the concept is somewhat atrocious, since it takes an analog physical reaction that is then emulated into a manual keyboard input that is then translated into a command on the game level. A more elegant solution would encompass taking the biological response and streaming it directly into the game using the DirectX platform as vehicle.

The NIA software lists eight different inputs in total. The bulk of those inputs are made up by a "muscle" input that tracks facial muscle tension (largely from jaw and eyebrow muscles) and a "glance" control that tracks lateral eye movement. Six brain-wave inputs—three for alpha waves and three for beta waves—fill out the neural control aspect of the NIA. This post by Dr. Schuette suggests alpha waves correspond to aggression and that beta waves can correspond to pain management. For instance, one can trigger the Alpha 2 meter by thinking of an expletive. Schuette told us he successfully used this method to get his character to jump in a game, but I could never get this to work myself.

In addition to a handful of pre-configured game profiles, OCZ's software offers an intimidating number of options, allowing users to set up multiple virtual "joysticks" and "switches" to translate input into game actions on the fly. The NIA manual provides an example of a three-joystick scheme where different levels of facial muscle tension make the in-game character run straight, run while zigzagging, jump forward, jump still, and jump backward. I had enough trouble playing with a three-level jaw tension joystick, so I never gave that particular config a try, but it's there for users who feel comfortable enough with the device. Those users can also export their custom schemes, either for backup purposes or to share them with other NIA owners.

One thing the NIA won't let you do is control mouse movements; the software only supports binding inputs to keystrokes. Since the "glance" meter only tracks the X axis to begin with, I doubt the NIA would be a useful mouse replacement even if OCZ implemented such a feature. You'll still have to use a good old mouse to look around in first-person shooters.


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OCZ's Neural Impulse Actuator


The flying car of control schemes
by Cyril Kowaliski — 11:05 AM on June 27, 2008

More than a year has passed since I first tried OCZ's Neural Impulse Actuator, and I've had the finished product in my possession for a good three weeks now, yet I'm still not sure how to tackle this review. Writing about something as peculiar and downright unique as the NIA is no easy task. To set the stage, I should probably discuss control systems in general.

For thousands of years now, man has used simple, relatively intuitive controls to make machines and animals do his bidding—be it squeezing his thighs to make a horse gallop faster, cranking a wheel and axle to draw water from a well, or flooring a car's gas pedal to run a red light. Applying mechanical force to get something done is second nature to most folks, and video games are no different. We use joysticks, gamepads, mice, keyboards, and other controllers to translate finger or limb movements into actions on the screen. Want to move your character left? Push the analog stick to the side. Want to fire? Squeeze the trigger. Easy.

What OCZ has done with the NIA is throw most of that out the window. By incorporating an electro-myogram, electro-encephalogram, and electro-oculogram into a small headband and a little black box with a USB connector, the company has developed a control system that can translate eye movements, facial muscle movements, and brain waves into game input. As a result, the NIA is a strange contraption that requires some very unusual participation from the user.

Walking with your jaw
When was the last time you used your jaw to control a machine? Unless you're Stephen Hawking or extremely lazy, you probably can't remember. How about using your eyes or your alpha brain waves? Didn't think so.

The NIA makes those things possible thanks to a headband with three diamond-shaped sensors positioned at the front. According to OCZ Technology Development Director Michael Schuette's article on the subject, the sensors are made of a plastic injected with highly conductive nanofibers, which the NIA hardware uses to read electrical potentials from the user's forehead. OCZ built the remainder of the headband out of soft rubber, with a lanyard at the back to allow for adjustment. A cable runs down the left side of the headband and plugs into the black NIA box, which includes two completely separate circuits: one hooked up to the headband and the other hooked up to the host PC's USB port. The two circuits only talk to each other through an optical transceiver, ensuring that users won't get electrical shocks if things go awry.

On the user's PC, the NIA control software converts electrical potentials from the headband into usable input. Schuette explains that the software separates the different frequencies in these potentials using proprietary algorithms not unlike fast Fourier transforms. Running these algorithms on a continuously streaming flow of data can apparently hog some "serious CPU cycles," although we didn't see the control application eat up much more than 10-15% of our test rig's Core 2 Duo E6400.

At this point, you might be wondering just how the NIA actually interfaces with games. OCZ's solution to that problem is quite clever: when it enters the game mode, the NIA app simply translates inputs into keystrokes. You can hit CTRL-F12 to enable and disable the input system in order to avoid any accidental key presses in setup screens, but in theory, the NIA should work with almost any game. That's quite convenient for such a novel device, even if Schuette says it could be done better:

Even though this still works – with a certain amount of sluggishness, the concept is somewhat atrocious, since it takes an analog physical reaction that is then emulated into a manual keyboard input that is then translated into a command on the game level. A more elegant solution would encompass taking the biological response and streaming it directly into the game using the DirectX platform as vehicle.

The NIA software lists eight different inputs in total. The bulk of those inputs are made up by a "muscle" input that tracks facial muscle tension (largely from jaw and eyebrow muscles) and a "glance" control that tracks lateral eye movement. Six brain-wave inputs—three for alpha waves and three for beta waves—fill out the neural control aspect of the NIA. This post by Dr. Schuette suggests alpha waves correspond to aggression and that beta waves can correspond to pain management. For instance, one can trigger the Alpha 2 meter by thinking of an expletive. Schuette told us he successfully used this method to get his character to jump in a game, but I could never get this to work myself.

In addition to a handful of pre-configured game profiles, OCZ's software offers an intimidating number of options, allowing users to set up multiple virtual "joysticks" and "switches" to translate input into game actions on the fly. The NIA manual provides an example of a three-joystick scheme where different levels of facial muscle tension make the in-game character run straight, run while zigzagging, jump forward, jump still, and jump backward. I had enough trouble playing with a three-level jaw tension joystick, so I never gave that particular config a try, but it's there for users who feel comfortable enough with the device. Those users can also export their custom schemes, either for backup purposes or to share them with other NIA owners.

One thing the NIA won't let you do is control mouse movements; the software only supports binding inputs to keystrokes. Since the "glance" meter only tracks the X axis to begin with, I doubt the NIA would be a useful mouse replacement even if OCZ implemented such a feature. You'll still have to use a good old mouse to look around in first-person shooters.


can be purchased on Amazon:

12 Unbelievable Ways to Move Huge Buildings [PICS/VIDS]


From floating churches and spiraling skyscrapers to moving hospitals and relocated temples here are twelve amazing acts of building moving.

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The 7 Hamburgers of the Apocalypse

Hamburgers, next to apple pie and statins they're the ambassadors of American cuisine--for better or for worse--and these harbingers of heart disease might be the baddest of all.

Here are 7 over the top hamburgers that are guaranteed to clog your arteries by just looking that them:

1. The Quadruple Bypass Burger

The Quadruple Bypass Burger from the Heart Attack Grill; four burger patties with side orders of Jolt Cola, unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes and French fries deep-fried in pure lard.

QuadHeartAttack.jpg

2. Big Daddy Barrick Burger

Sonya Thomas, a 5'5 99-pound competitive eating champion, downed an 18 pound Big Daddy Barrick Burger in Las Vegas a few years ago.

BigDaddyBarrickBurger.jpg

3. The Hotdog Hamburger

This one hails from England. I'm not sure what it's called, but it's a hamburger with a chopped hotdog on top. HotdoghamburgerEngland.jpg

4. Mulligan's Monster

Mulligan's invented the Hamdog, one hotdog wrapped in a beef patty and cheese, then deep-fried, covered with chili and onions and served on a bun with a fried egg on top.

Hamdog.jpg

5. Dyer's Burgers

Dyer's Burgers are deep-fried hamburgers piled with mustard, onion and pickle and paired with a single, double or triple-order of cheese fries.

Dyer'sBurger.JPG

6. Whatafarm Burger

Whataburger puts the entire farm in one sandwich; bacon, cheese, fried egg, burger patty, and chicken cutlet. They affectionately call it the "Whatafarm" burger.

Farmburger.jpg

7. Luther Burger

Another Mulligan's creation, the Luther Burger. Named after Luther Vandross it's a bacon cheeseburger sandwiched between two glazed donuts.

LutherBurger.JPG


Now, I hope you all find it incredibly ironic that a guy who doesn't eat meat was asked to compile a list of monstrous hamburgers. I do.



Okay, not really jumping the shark but a pretty neat shot none the less. This was taken at New Smyrna Beach, Florida in a sequence of three. The jumping behavior is not all that rare for sharks, but catching it on film like this is.

The Chinese Diet Could Solve The West's Obesity Crisis

Sticking together: residents of Chengdu celebrate Chinese New Year
Chinese food has a bad reputation in the UK. The rice-heavy meals and fatty meat dishes are thought to lead straight to obesity and heart disease. But properly prepared, says Chinese food expert Lorraine Clissold, the very opposite is true: the Chinese way of eating is healthy and fulfilling, fights illness and prolongs life. She also insists...

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The People You'll Meet in Every Office... [COMIC] The People You'll Meet in Every Office... [COMIC]



A great list of office personality stereotypes... you've probably met more than a few of them (or will).

The Top 15 MMA Fighters in the World


It’s time to countdown the top 15 fighters in the sport of mixed martial arts. We grouped in the best fighters from all different divisions and all different organizations to compile the list of the top 15 fighters in the world.

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Apple Now Third Largest PC Vendor in the US, Survey Says

Agam Shah, IDG News Service
Wednesday, July 16, 2008 7:30 PM PDT

Apple is moving up the charts, toppling Acer to become the third largest PC vendor in the U.S., according to a survey from Gartner.

Apple defied a weakening economy to record a 38.1 percent growth rate in U.S. PC shipments, according to Gartner. Overall PC shipments in the U.S. grew just 4.2 percent to 16.5 million units during the quarter.

The company shipped 1.4 million units compared to Acer's 1.33 million, according to Gartner's survey. Dell held the top spot, shipping 5.25 million units and growing 11.9 percent year-over-year, followed by HP.

IDC also released a survey on Wednesday that had Apple and Acer running neck and neck.

Apple is witnessing unit growth across the board with both desktops and laptops doing well, said David Daoud, research manager at IDC. "They seem to have a good balance of products."

The second quarter is typically big for Apple, Daoud said. "That's when they are inking relationships and selling to educational institutions ahead of the back-to-school season," Daoud said.

In a mass market dominated by sensitive budgets and buyers, Apple is catering to specific buyers who are immune from the economic slowdown.

"The mindshare that company is significant. Not only among consumers, but small-to-medium businesses and even enterprises are looking at Apple hardware."

At the same token, budgetary constraints may make it hard for consumers to switch to high-priced Apple PCs, Daoud said.

The company is expected to sustain its growth in the U.S. in the upcoming quarters, Daoud said. Its PC shipments among students going back to school is expected to be strong in the third quarter. Apple may also find PC buyers who are unhappy with the "lack of innovation" in the PC market, Daoud said.

"[Windows] Vista may be helpful, but it is not resonating with consumers at the moment," he said.

Apple has a small market worldwide compared to HP and Dell, but it represents an opportunity to grow. The company is showing good growth in Japan, where it shipped 130,000 PC units in the first quarter of 2008, according to Daoud.

Awesome Super Mario Kart Wedding Cake [PICS]


The greatest wedding cake ever! The Super Mario Kart Cake was a hit with guests at our wedding. Everything in the pictures of this cake is 100% edible. This Chocolate Decadence Cake (black chocolate cake filled with bittersweet chocolate ganache, chocolate buttercream and chocolate mousse) was as delciious as it was unique.

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Tooth Lasers Could Make Drilling a Thing of the Past

For some people, just the sound of a dental drill is enough to cause panic—but the good news is that this barbaric procedure may be a thing of the past. UK researchers have developed a technology that is based on Raman spectroscopy (a method that is currently used to identify chemicals) to spot tooth decay before it begins. A new study has determined that harmful bacteria can be detected by analyzing how light is scattered when a laser is fired at the tooth.

This method would make it possible to detect damage much faster than X-rays, nipping the problem in the bud before drilling is necessary. The testing is ongoing, but the researchers hope that the lasers could be available commercially within the next five years. Of course, you would have to actually go to the dentist on a regular basis to benefit from the procedure, so my guess is that drilling won't disappear anytime soon. [eurekalert via ZDNet]

7 iPhone Apps to Boost Your Productivity

The iPhone has been out for more than a week and the hubbub has started dying off and the realities are starting to set in. Not to try and put more fuel on the fire of hype, but I always think the point when the Reality Distortion Field effect starts wearing off* is the best time to look at the technology objectively as well as the application options available to you.

I mean, when an application that tests how long you can push a button gets web-wide coverage, you know there’s some kind of reality distortion going on.

So, I’ve compiled a list of apps from the iTunes App Store that I’ve found useful and good for productivity that you might be interested in trying out. That is, if you hadn’t already done so during the week’s excessive hype. Or if you’re not busy playing Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart.

To find any of these apps and install them, fire up iTunes and run them through the iTunes Store search box. And if you’re favorite productivity application isn’t listed here, it could be because I haven’t tried it or didn’t like it—but then, just as likely, it might just be because of the bone-headed decision to restrict some apps by country.

* I purchased mine well before this point in time arrived.

OmniFocus

I’m bringing out the big guns first, when it comes to productivity. OmniFocus is a great GTD task management application. It’s a “port” (and I use that word loosely) from Omni Group’s popular desktop application of the same name. Though it’s on the pricier end of the available iPhone apps, the functionality offered can be accounted for.

Some developers just want to get a mobile version of their desktop application up at the App Store, but OmniFocus is one of the few that leverage the iPhone’s capabilities as distinct from the Mac with location-based task lists thanks to the iPhone’s GPS location services.

OmniFocus for the iPhone will sync and integrate with OmniFocus on the Mac if you’re running the latest version of the software. If your tasks are important to you, make sure to keep your data backed up, because I’ve read a review or two where an application crash caused complete data loss.

Mocha VNC Lite

Oh, crap. I’ve just got in bed and want to do some reading online with my laptop, to relax before going to sleep. But I’ve left a torrent running on the computer in the home office and the Internet connection is so slow, it’s almost unusable!

I’ll have to get out of bed, turn the torrent off, and if I want it done by morning, I’ll have to get out bed again when I’m done and turn it back on.

Okay, I’m sure you can think of a scenario that’s more about becoming productive and less about pandering to laziness, but Mocha VNC works like Screen Sharing on the Mac does. You can use Mocha to control your Windows, Mac or Linux computer and the level of interaction is surprisingly high. You use the multi-touch finger controls to zoom around the screen just like when you’re using MobileSafari. Best of all, it’s free.

BookShelf

BookShelf is an ebook reader for your iPhone. It does text documents all the way to Mobipocket books. I definitely think this app can boost your productivity because it allows you to get more reading done quicker. You can read any book in your entire library in the living room, on the train, heck, even when you’re pedaling away on your exercise bike. Ever tried to lug an entire library of books around? Not fun. This is simple and easy. I’ve had the iPhone 3G since Friday and I’ve already finished two-and-a-half books thanks to BookShelf.

Mobipocket, the ebook reader I’ve been using on Windows Mobile or CE devices for close to a decade, is apparently coming out for the iPhone in months to come. But BookShelf beat them to the punch and they get a vote from me.

What I’d like to see: a smoother desktop app for shoveling books onto your phone and a revision of the “chunking” process that turns it into a background function you don’t need to worry about.

Evernote

I can barely live without Evernote on the Mac these days. The iPhone version makes it easier to create notes on the go and also easy to view them, but if you want to edit them, you won’t be too happy—Evernote doesn’t allow it. I’m hoping, nay, begging, that they’ll build the ability to edit existing notes into a future version. Please, guys?

You can do snapshot notes with the iPhone’s camera or audio notes. And, of course, you get searchable images as usual once your snapshot has uploaded to the Evernote server.

NetNewsWire

I’m a user of NetNewsWire on the Mac, so this app had me excited. Unfortunately, it’s not quite the experience I had hoped for, and not only that, but it won’t seem to download my entire collection of feeds as synced with Newsgator.

But, where before I spent precious office time catching up on feeds (after I got my real work done, of course), I can now get (most of) them done when I have an idle moment—like when I’m waiting for someone to say something interesting at that dinner party! This frees up extra time to work on new projects or take on another small client project back at the office.

Sidenote: before you lambast me for my previous habit of reading feeds when I could’ve been working on a new client, feed reading is actually an important task for a writer whose work is primarily online. It’s not extra time I was desperate to have before, but thirty minutes a day can add up.

Google Mobile

There may be no Spotlight on the iPhone (yet, the optimist would add), but Google Mobile does the job just as well as a Mobile Spotlight would. That is, aside from the system-wide integration that it obviously lacks.

Google Mobile will let you perform a search that hunts through your contacts and the web and provides you with the most relevant and local results first. Does the job damn well, while we’re waiting on Spotlight. You hear that, Apple? We want it along with copy and paste, okay?

Twinkle

You might be surprised to find a Twitter client in a list of productivity apps, but there’s a good reason for it. Since I’ve installed Twinkle, I’ve stopped using Twhirl or constantly refreshing the tab I have Twitter open in; I know Twinkle will let me know when someone replies to or messages me and since installing it my time spent on the site in general has decreased a lot—without really affecting my participation in the community there.

10 Most Anticipated Movies After The Dark Knight


'X-Men Origins: Wolverine,' 'Terminator 4' and Heath Ledger's final film also have us excited for next year.



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