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Monday, August 18, 2008

Who doesn't want Olympic gymnast Alicia Sacramone?

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U.S. gymnast Alicia Sacramone at last night's Olympic competition. (Photo credit: US Presswire)

The eldest U.S. Olympic gymnast, Alicia Sacramone, may have taken most of the blame for Tuesday night's loss to China after two notable screw-ups.

Yet Sacramone has gained a legion of new fans, apparently not for her athletic talents but for her looks. Call it the Anna Kournikova effect.

The flexible athlete spent much of Tuesday's NBC broadcast in the spotlight, though not for the proudest reasons, and viewers took notice.

Immediately after the women's gymnastics competition, the phrase "Alicia Sacramone is hot" shot to No. 1 on Google's hot trends list. Hordes of web surfers scoured the depths of Google for information on and photos of the athlete. (Psst! Right over here.)

Facebook groups sprang up overnight for fans ogling the Olympian. One was created Wednesday morning around 10 a.m. and has already netted 400 members. Group creator Tyler Herrick, a student at the University of Maryland, wrote on the message board: "Dont worry fellas ill put some pictures of her up when i get home from work. So you can imagine whatever dream youve got going there." Later, he made good on his promise.

Existing Facebook groups saw increased activity as well. The Alicia Sacramone Fan Club has more than 5,300 members, gaining 1,000 recruits since Wednesday, and experienced a jolt of activity on its message board. A similar effect took place on her official fan page. And there's hope for those who may have written off gymnasts as potential mates after seeing the baby-faced Chinese competitors. The description for "Guys (or Gals) with the hots for Alicia Sacramone," a clear competitor to Herrick's Facebook group, reads: "SHE'S 20, so she's not jailbait!"

Outside the social networking realm, the Alicia Sacramone's Fan Site servers seem to be getting hit pretty hard. Pages were taking considerably longer to load Wednesday than they did Tuesday night when some of us were looking for pictures of ... uh, never mind.

-- Mark Milian

3-D Movies: Coming Back at You

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein for TIME


The brick road wasn't just yellow. It was school-bus-parked-on-the-surface-of-the-sun yellow. That's because when The Wizard of Oz premiered in 1939, Hollywood was still testing its newest toy, three-color Technicolor, and studios wanted to astonish audiences with supersaturated hues.

Today Hollywood is looking to 3-D movies--now enjoying a digitally fueled renaissance--to make an impression as lasting as Dorothy's ruby slippers. The first feature films shot and shown in digital 3-D--bugs-in-space toon Fly Me to the Moon, Brendan Fraser's volcano-diving Journey to the Center of the Earth and concert movies by U2 and Miley Cyrus--leaped into moviegoers' laps this year. In 2009 at least 10 more 3-D movies will arrive, including James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar, DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens and Pixar's Up.

"Over the next couple of years, we'll get our Gone With the Wind and our Citizen Kane," says Michael Lewis, CEO of Real D, a company that equips movie theaters with digital 3-D technology.

Techno-impresarios like Lewis have been trying to push 3-D movies beyond newfangledness virtually since the beginning of cinema (see box). But there's good reason to believe that today's audiences will enjoy 3-D as a quality that's essential to any blockbuster, like color and sound, even if it does require those retro glasses.

Making a 3-D movie involves filming an image from two perspectives: one representing the left eye, the other the right. When synchronized and watched through glasses that allow each eye to see only its own movie, the two films create an illusion of depth. Until recently, perfect synchronization was nearly impossible, and production and exhibition were cumbersome. Digitization has eliminated many of the flaws of old 3-D movies--like nausea and headaches brought on by poor synch ing--and has motivated studios to push the format on exhibitors and filmmakers. "It's an important part of our business going forward," says Alan Bergman, president of Walt Disney Studios, which will release an animated canine-superhero movie, Bolt, in 3-D in November, as well as all its future Pixar films.

Studios have plenty of reasons to back the format. Screenings in 3-D create an experience that audiences can't get on their sofas--or pirate. (At least not yet.) The 3-D-capable home-entertainment systems widely available in three to five years won't replicate theaters either, because giant screen size is the key to creating the sense of depth. The first batch of films released in both regular format and 3-D made nearly three times as much money on 3-D screens, thanks to higher demand and ticket prices (3-D movies cost $1 to $5 more). However, only about 1,000 U.S. screens are currently equipped to show digital 3-D movies, not nearly enough to fuel a blockbuster like The Dark Knight, which opened on more than 9,000 screens. By 2010, industry analysts expect more than 7,000 digital 3-D screens in the U.S. To persuade more cinema owners to make the switch, studios are relying on an early crop of films to show the medium's potential.

The New Pioneers

Today's digital 3-D directors are flaunting what they've got, which is the power to make a bodily, almost primal impact on audiences. "You react to a film intellectually with your head and emotionally with your heart," says Ben Stassen, director of Fly Me to the Moon, a tale of three tween-age houseflies who hitch a ride on Apollo 11. "But in a 3-D film, you have a very strong physical component: you can actually make your audience duck." When Stassen's houseflies buzz over a field, it's like riding in a bug-size roller coaster, weaving between giant blades of grass.

Playing to those expectations, Journey to the Center of the Earth director Eric Brevig booby-trapped his movie with zooming yo-yos, flying fish and skittering bugs. "I felt I had to do things I wouldn't do if I were making the same film in five years," says Brevig, whose experience creating films for theme-park rides reveals itself here. "People putting on 3-D glasses or paying a little extra to see a movie in 3-D at this point in cinema are expecting to have things blatantly launched into the audience." But in a scene in which incandescent birds appear to flutter out of the screen, Brevig shows 3-D's subtler potential: the effect transplants viewers from their theater seats to the lush core of Jules Verne's earth.

Such transporting moments make it tempting to imagine what directors outside the action and animation genres might do with 3-D. Would the Parisian courtesans in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! cancan off the screen? Could the leaves of Terrence Malick's Edenic New World brush our cheeks? "3-D can be intimate, scary, claustrophobic, expansive," says Charlotte Huggins, who produced both Journey to the Center of the Earth and Fly Me to the Moon. So far, most 3-D-movie makers agree on one criterion: "If the movie takes you somewhere that you dream about going to and probably aren't going to get to, it belongs in 3-D," says Greg Foster, president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment, which transfers regular-format movies like Polar Express into 3-D and is rolling out a new digital 3-D system this year.

On the other hand, says Foster, "If someone decides they want to do My Dinner with Andre in 3-D, it's not for us." It's estimated that 3-D increases a film's below-the-line production costs 25% to 30%, and for some actors, the notion of wrinkles and love handles in 3-D adds considerable anxiety. Then, too, at this point only a small niche of Hollywood has the technical know-how for the process.

What worries some 3-D trailblazers is that studios might see the format as a way to punch up a mediocre story. That shortcut may work for a while, but eventually the hope is that 3-D will become just another weapon in a filmmaker's arsenal, as useful and unremarkable as the color yellow.

With reporting by RICHARD CORLISS

Phelps Wants to Help Swimming Grow

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Michael Phelps after winning his eighth gold. He said he wanted to raise his sport’s profile.

BEIJING — His work here done, Michael Phelps spent a few minutes Sunday hitting the highlights.

Meeting the Spaniard Rafael Nadal at the athletes’ village was one. Phelps said he approached Nadal and introduced himself, explaining, “He’s probably one of my favorite tennis players to watch on TV.”

Multimedia

Phelps After His 8th GoldInteractive Feature

Phelps After His 8th Gold

After surpassing Mark Spitz as the most decorated athlete in a single Olympics, Phelps will probably require no further introductions. His successful pursuit of eight gold medals was the story of the first week of the Beijing Games.

From what Phelps has heard, the race that delivered his eighth medal — the 4x100-meter medley relay on Sunday morning — was shown at sports bars, neighborhood Olympic parties and the giant video screens at the stadium where Phelps’s hometown Baltimore Ravens were playing a preseason game.

Now comes the hard part.

The 23-year-old Phelps wants to keep people tuned into swimming, but how?

“I don’t want this sport to be an every-four-years sport,” said Phelps, who plans to compete through the 2012 Olympics in London. “In between the four years, there’s really not as much exposure as I’d like.”

Swimming is not like tennis, a sport in which a fan like Phelps can turn on his television on a lazy Sunday and see Nadal or Roger Federer hard at work. Swimming’s best athletes will not gather in one place again until next summer, at the world championship in Rome.

Members of the United States swim team, who have been cocooned for the past two weeks at the Olympic Village, have heard from people back home that children are signing up for lessons at the pools where they once trained. But will the enthusiasm generated by his performance last past Labor Day?

“My whole goal is to change the sport of swimming in a positive way,” Phelps said. He added: “I think it can go even farther. That’s where I hope to take it.”

After Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he retired so he could cash in on his success. Swimmers in those days could not accept money from sponsors and maintain their Olympic eligibility.

The walls of amateurism came crumbling down in the 1990s, allowing swimmers to remain in the sport longer. Jason Lezak, a teammate of Phelps’s on the 4x100 freestyle and medley relays, is 32, the vanguard of what another American, Brendan Hansen, described as “a new breed of swimmer.”

Hansen, 26, said he had no immediate plans to retire. Why would he bail out of the wave Phelps’s success is generating?

“Michael is the biggest thing that sport has ever seen,” Hansen said. “Not swimming, but sport in general. He just made the pressure putt to win the U.S. Open. He just won the Tour of France. He just knocked out Muhammad Ali. And he did it in one week.”

To take advantage of the excitement Phelps generated, swimming needs to be on television more, Hansen said. “But we’re fighting against basketball and baseball and football and hockey,” he said.

It would be hard to imagine any of the N.B.A. stars on the United States basketball team receiving a bigger red-carpet welcome than Phelps did Sunday when he showed up for a news conference at the main press center. Tens of lightning-buglike camera flashes heralded his arrival, giving Phelps one more image to commit to his memory of these Games.

“I don’t want to forget anything that happened,” he said.

The night before the medley relay, Hansen, who swam the breaststroke leg, stopped by Phelps’s room in the athletes’ village. Phelps’s seven gold medals were hanging from the curtain rod.

“It looked like a freaking wind chime,” Hansen said.

They talked for a while, and Hansen promised that he would do his part to see that Phelps got his eighth gold. Whatever happens from here on out, he remembered telling Phelps, “You won’t have to ever prove yourself again.”

Now that he has passed Spitz, the next challenge for Phelps is making sure people do not forget about swimming.

“I just want people to get involved,” he said. “This sport has changed my life and allowed me to do so many things.”

Except, lately, sleep. Phelps’s first post-Games goal was not too ambitious.

“I want to lay in my own bed for five minutes, at least,” he said.

Watch The Righteous Kill Redband Trailer You F*cking Mutt

Posted by Rob Hunter (rob@filmschoolrejects.com) on August 17, 2008

Righteous Kill Logo

The upcoming Robert De Niro/Al Pacino thriller, Righteous Kill, has a new redband trailer. Watch it below and then see if you agree with some assumptions about the movie.

So what can we assume about Righteous Kill from this new trailer?

**Warning — This May Contain Spoilers. That is, if we are right… We have not yet seen the film. At this point we are just guessing.**

1) De Niro may succeed in beating his own long standing record (Casino) for ”fuck” utterances and derivations. 2) Carla Gugino gets naked. Again. 3) Director Jon Avnet and Pacino may have redeemed themselves for the travesty that was 88 Minutes. 4) Brian Dennehy is still alive. 5) Pacino is the vigilante killer and De Niro will have to shoot him in the end. This would of course make them even for Heat.

Does the new trailer make you more or less inclined to see Righteous Kill?

Also, if you are a fan of badasses on film, namely De Niro and Pacino, have a look at our brand new special feature by clicking below:

Click Here for more of the Best of De Niro and Pacino

$5 Million Self-Cleaning Toilets Sold for $12,549 Online


A man waits for his turn to use an automated public toilet, near Seattle's famous Pike Place Market. The five high-tech self-cleaning toilets cost Seattle $5 million but sold online for just $12,549.

SEATTLE (AP) — City officials have finally gotten rid of five high-tech self-cleaning toilets that cost Seattle $5 million — but sold online for just $12,549.

The city installed the modernistic stand-alone toilets four years ago, hoping they would provide tourists and the homeless a place to do their business while downtown. But the automated loos became better known for drug use and prostitution than for relief.

Neighbors and analysts said they were less cost-effective than regular public restrooms, and in May, the City Council voted to sell them on eBay. After a failed first attempt, when a $89,000 minimum failed to attract a single bid, the city revised its strategy in hopes of sparking a bidding free-for-all.

But despite more than 9,000 combined page views, only 148 bids were cast.

One of the five toilets, which currently graces the downtown waterfront, sold for $4,899, but the average sale was just over $2,510.

A Rochester, Wash., business, Racecar Supply, won all five auctions, which ended Thursday. Butch Behn, the owner, said he plans to use two of the units at the South Sound Speedway and sell the other three.

"It'd probably be good to have a couple around for spares," he said. "We get pretty busy at the track sometimes."

Pat Miller, the city's surplus manager, said the city will recover just over $2,080 per toilet after Bidadoo, the company that listed and sold the units online, takes its 17% cut.

The money will go into the city's utility fund.

"The bottom line is that you're getting rid of the stuff," Miller said.

Finding a home for self-cleaning potties that had lived a hard city life was difficult, Miller said, but he's faced bigger hurdles.

"Most cities are strange in the sense that periodically, we have very unique things to get rid of," he said. "Luckily, the Internet is making it easier for us to find these things a home."

Eight years ago, he was scratching his head over the city's 66-foot topiary dinosaurs, which stood guard outside the Seattle Center.

"We didn't know what to do. They weighed about 5 tons; they were just huge," he said. "There were rumors for a while that Michael Jackson had expressed interest in them, in bringing them down to Neverland."

The dinos ultimately found a home with a Seattle neighborhood foundation.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

How to choose the right Cruise!

SeaDream I"
Balinese sun beds aboard SeaDream I

Way back in July 2003 we offered a roundup of the best cabins on 64 ships. Our first annual cruising guide in 2006 taught you how to pick the right cabin, get the right price, and customize the cruise to your needs. And last year we singled out the very best itinerary in the world's most popular cruising regions. This year we take it to another level.

For a cruise to rate as one of your best trips ever, it's imperative to match yourself to the right ship. First, size matters. Do you want a vessel small enough to call at off-the-beaten-wake ports, or large enough that there's a two-page daily activity list? Second, there's the itinerary to consider. Do you prefer a vessel that stays in ports until late at night so you can sightsee past sunset, or do you know that by 5 p.m. you'll be zonked and ready to hit the hot tub? Third, you need to consider the ship's features. What matters to you most: a state-of-the-art spa, a lively casino, inventive tasting menus, cabaret shows, teen-specific programs ... or all of the above?

For my own personal vacation last winter, I had to match myself to the right ship. In the past I'd favored small vessels with exciting itineraries. I'd gone Greek island hopping on Windstar's intimate sailboats, observed icebergs calving in the Chilean fjords from Regent's Seven Seas Mariner, and watched the America's Cup Race off Valencia, Spain, from Silversea's Silver Whisper. This time, however, I chose a 2,400-passenger megaship sailing an utterly mundane route, astonishing everyone who knows me...and ending up with the perfect vacation. Why? Because I picked the right ship for a family holiday with my husband and our four- and six-year-old sons. I didn't need world-class sights or hidden-gem islands, cooking classes or salsa lessons. What I needed was sleep. And what this translated into, in cruise terms, was a well-equipped child-care center with age-specific programs and plenty of kids for my boys to befriend; sports facilities that would allow me to exhaust the whirling dervishes with minimal effort on my part (a large pool, a water slide, a basketball court, plenty of space for running); a selection of kid-friendly places to eat; and never having to dress up. The ports hardly mattered, as our goal was simply warm weather and the occasional beach. What did matter was not having to board a plane to get to the ship. And that's how our options were narrowed to two floating resorts that sail all winter from the New York area where we live: Norwegian Cruise Line's new Norwegian Gem) and Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. We could park the car and walk onboard, spend a day relaxing in the spa as the ship plowed southward, and wake up in sunny climes 36 hours later. Since the Gem best suited our schedule, I signed us up for its seven-night round-trip cruise to Florida and the Bahamas.

From the moment we sailed past the Statue of Liberty and squeezed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by a hair—exciting even for a jaded native New Yorker like me—the boys had found all they needed, from the bowling alley to the giant outdoor chess set to the vision of a towering climbing wall. As for us, we borrowed 700-page novels from the ship's library and buried ourselves in the plush daybeds on deck. Our first day at sea was so recuperative—what with the boys parked in the kids' club all day—that, to my surprise, my husband and I ended up energized enough to disembark with the kids at every stop. At Port Canaveral we went to the Kennedy Space Center, in Nassau we zoomed down the water slides at Atlantis. We also joined in the Gem's family activities, of course—from the scavenger hunt on the cruise line's private island to the Amazing Race covering all 14 decks of the ship.

So that you, too, can find a cruise that is the answer to your vacation prayers, we've put together this guide to the ships that best suit your needs and interests. Bon voyage!

Men And Breasts

Let’s talk about breasts. Most guys love to, so why should I be any different? Like it or not, this anatomical accoutrement receives more than its fair share of attention from the male of the species. And while someone with a doctorate might be able to explain the underlying psychological motivation, the simple truth is that men love boobs.

“Duh,” you say, “Every woman knows of men’s almost obsessive surveillance of this particular part of the female topography. Tell me something I don’t know.” Okay, I will. Regardless of what you believe, men don’t just love big breasts. We love ‘em all: Large, small, medium, extra-large, firm, floppy, perky and pendulous. All boobs are welcome. And regardless of their size, the more we see of them the happier we are. Hence, we are ecstatic about the current padded, pushed-up, on-display style bras which go out of their way to showcase whatever you’ve got.

Men And Breasts

Now this is not to say that a man won’t be wowed by a particularly prominent set of boobs. To be truthful, most will - because larger objects tend to more easily catch our attention. Nonetheless, we are still almost fanatical in our affections for more modest endowments. And if we spy even the slightest hint of nipple, regardless of the fullness of flesh of the surrounding neighborhood, we’re happy as clams. It’s not unlike many women’s fascination with diamonds. Big ones catch your attention and may cause a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs,” but a smaller-caratted cut of equal brilliance will still illicit its fair share of complements – since you have an enthusiastic appreciation of diamonds in general. But the similarity ends there, because even though your love of diamonds is only equaled by your disdain for cubic zirconia and other “fakes,” we feel no similar animosity toward breasts that aren’t 100 percent original equipment. Spruce ‘em up, plump ‘em out, enhance or condense ‘em, we’ll love those puppies as if they were just the way nature made ‘em. What can I say, when it comes to breasts, we’re very accommodating.

So what does all this mean? Simply put - regardless of what you have on your chest, men will be craning their necks to get a peek, or dare we dream – a grope. Such is the allure of your boobs. They are the mountains, hills or speed bumps at which we worship, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. So don’t spend a lot of time being concerned about what you have or haven’t got in the boob department. As far as we’re concerned, as long as they’re less-hairy than what we have, they’re sure to appeal to our simple tastes. And it is a bad pun, but nonetheless heartfelt, that on behalf of men everywhere, I say, “thanks for the mammaries.”

(C)2008 David M. Matthews. All Rights Reserved. davidmmatthews's blog feed

Every Man Sees You Naked: An Insider’s Guide to How Men Think

Thousands Gather To Say One Last Good-Bye To Bernie Mac


Mac's fellow "Original Kings of Comedy" brought the house down as they broke down in tears, unable to contain their grief. In the same sentence, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey and D.L. Hughley would flip a joke, causing the crowd to scream in laughter.

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Crazy Lightning Strike!

Awww! The Guinea Pig Olympics


Ever since Heracles blessed Olympiad with a stadium in honour of his father, Zeus, the sporting heroes of the day have taken part in the Olympic games. But man is not the only species to hold competitive sporting events

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ExoMars Rover Will be the Coolest Martian on Six Wheels

by Ian O'Neill

The ESA Pasteur Rover, the Mercedes Benz of Martian roving (ESA)

The ESA Pasteur Rover, the Mercedes Benz of Martian roving (ESA)


Preparations for the European ExoMars mission appear to be in full swing for a 2013 launch to the Red Planet. This will be a huge mission for ESA as they have yet to control a robot on another planet. Yes, us Europeans had control of the Huygens probe that drifted through the atmosphere of Titan (and had a few minutes to feel what it was like to sit on another planet before Huygens slipped into robot heaven), but it’s been NASA who has made all the strides in robotic roving technology. Although Russia gave the rover thing a blast back in 1971, the roads have been clear for the 1998 Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover and the current NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers. Spirit and Opportunity are still exploring the planet (regardless of the limping and stiff robotic arms), several years after their warranty expired. But the Exploration Rovers won’t be the most hi-tech robotic buggies to rove the Martian regolith for much longer.

Enter the ESA Pasteur Rover, possibly the meanest looking rover you will ever see, with the intent of probing Mars to its core…

I’ve been half-following the ESA ExoMars mission for a while now. I say “half-following,” as in I haven’t really been that interested. The mission concept looked pretty good and ticked all the right boxes for a mission to Mars (although I switched off at the line that said, “…will search for evidence that life may exist…” yawn), but it still didn’t grab me, where was the meat? I got bored reading about the ESA concepts, they never seemed to get off the drawing board. I suppose my dreams for European domination on Mars were shattered when the UK’s Beagle 2 made a divot in the planet in 2003. Now that was a sad Christmas for the UK Space Program (we have one? Yes, yes we do!). Of course I was happy for the orbiter Mars Express, but Beagle 2 was going to be awesome. Oh well, I had to move on.

Mars rover Spirit: Old but reliable. Fast becoming the Toyota Celica of the Red Planet? (NASA)

Mars rover Spirit: Old but reliable. Fast becoming the Toyota Celica of the Red Planet? (NASA)

I suppose what it came down to was the sheer volume of spacecraft NASA has churned out in the last decade; Europe really underperformed in my mind (although they didn’t really, just look at the Automatic Transfer Vehicle, Ariane and Venus Express). NASA was doing the cool missions and they really knew how to sell an idea. Look at the Phoenix mission for example. Not only is it assembled from spare parts (from the 1999 Mars Polar Lander), its atmospheric entry, descent and landing was dubbed the “Seven Minutes of Terror.” How can you argue with a Hollywood mission like that?

So since Phoenix touched down in May, we’ve all been waiting for news from the static Mars outpost and now we’ve all forgotten about the Mars Expedition Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. What a fickle Earth-side audience we are.

But there is a new mission on the horizon. As NASA stutters with the Shuttle decommissioning and Constellation underfunding, ESA is beginning to show its mettle. Shiny gold mettle at that. (Yes, mettle is a word.) Remember that ExoMars project I was so down on? Well it’s just gone up in my estimations, I’ve just seen what the rover will look like. And it looks good.

Tough: The Pasteur Rover drills into the rock. None of this "scraping" business... (ESA)

Tough: Pasteur Rover drills into rock. None of this "scraping" business... (ESA)

Looks mean a lot when you’re buying a car, so why shouldn’t looks matter when trundling across the Martian tundra? Recently published images of the Pasteur Rover will surely get the exploring (and conquering) spirit going for any funding body; European member states will have no problem signing up for this mission. It looks sleek (well, as sleek as you can look with solar panels on your head) and tough. It also has bodywork that looks like it’s been modelled from a solid gold bar.

It also packs a punch. Yes, Pasteur has equipment on board to search for traces of amino acids (the precursor to life as we know it) with all that boring biology stuff (sorry, I’m here for the geophysics), but it also has a vast array of instruments monitoring seismic, tectonic and volcanic activity, all the way to the planet’s core. It will also analyse surrounding rocks with contact sensors. It has a ground-penetrating radar. It has a huge array of spectrometers, cameras and detectors. It will also have a high degree of automation, allowing mission control to select a target for Pasteur to roll to and the rover will do the rest (it will plan its own route there). Pasteur will also measure the Red Planet’s magnetic field to see how much radiation that atmosphere does allow through. Plus, and this is the best bit, it will have a drill to bore holes into rock, two metres deep.

To be honest, I’m now in love with the ExoMars mission and I’ll be following the news until (hopeful) launch in 2013. It’s amazing what image does to build interest in space exploration…

For more news on ExoMars, check out the Imperial College London press release

The world's hottest chilli pepper - the Dorset Naga - comes to Tesco

By Ryan Kisiel

Its lethal effects include burning eyes, streaming nose, uncontrollable hiccups and much, much worse.

And it is about to be sold at Tesco.

The world's hottest chilli pepper, the Dorset Naga, will be available in 10g sachets containing up to three tiny fruits, at a price of 89p.

Dorset Naga

Red hot: The notorious Dorset Naga, which is being launched across the UK by Tesco

‘The Dorset Chilli is something only absolute connoisseurs of very hot food and those with asbestos-lined stomachs should even consider trying.

‘However, that said, there are an increasing number of chilli heads as they are officially known, that not only savour but endorse these tiny vegetables as being beneficial in helping sweat out the body’s toxins.

‘We trialled them in our test kitchens and even the hardest blokes in our team were brought to their knees.

‘Anyone brave enough to try the Dorset Chilli will definitely be yelling "Ooh argh".’

The tiny ingredient was recently used to make the world’s hottest curry, a Bollywood Burner in a London restaurant.

dg

In the last year, brave Brits have splashed out £9 million on chillies, ranging from the fiery Scotch Bonnet and Bird’s Eye to the milder green, red and Orange Topaz varieties.

Mr Corbett added: ‘Chilli pepper culture in the UK has really come on in the last few years and they are no longer thought of as a culinary novelty.

‘In the past we used to primarily stock chilli peppers in areas where there was a large Afro-Caribbean or Asian community but nowadays we sell them in stores right across Britain.’ The Dorset Naga will be sold in 10g sachets which contain up to three chillis.

They cost 89p per sachet.

WTF is he doing? (PIC)

Just click to see...

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What the Hell Is That Thing On Olympian Kerri Walsh Shoulder


Tattoo? Symbiote?

For the longest time I thought the black sinewy thing on Olympic beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh's shoulder was either a confused Alien face sucker, a horny spider, a bad tattoo decision (a la Mike Tyson), or all of the above. Turns out I was way off, and it's actually Kinesio athletic tape from a company in Albuquerque. And upon further inspection, the hype surrounding the $15 tape appears justified, and goes way beyond helping athletes.

In addition to gracing the shoulder of one of America's finest looking athletes, the Kinesio tape also boasts magical properties, like the ability to assist and support muscles without inhibiting a joint's range of motion. Kinesio tape has actually been around for a while, and is available for a range of uses, but it took the modern-day Olympic games (and the right "spokeswoman") to see orders shoot up from 250 a month to 1,600 in a weekend.

John Jarvis, director of Kinesio USA, says the tape has graced the bodies of Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, countless baseball and football players, and cycling superman Lance Armstrong.

Surprisingly, Forbes notes that athletes comprise only 10% of Kenesio USA's customers. The largest market is pediatrics, where doctors have been helping children deal with neurological disorders for the past 25 years. With disorders like cerebral palsy, for example, the tape is used to help strengthen weak muscles. Kerri Walsh is great and all, but that's the real reason I can get behind this product. [Forbes]

Buying Cannabis Online - The Drug Dealer with a Homepage

"Will the easy availability of drugs on the Internet open the door to a depraved new world? If current trends are any indication, U.S. drug policy is an endangered species " -Michelle Goldberg

It came in a plain brown wrapper--two varieties of high-grade marijuana totaling a quarter ounce, delivered to a downtown San Francisco office building via regular mail. The pot had been ordered off a website in Amsterdam, members.xoom.com/drugsstore/, which is designed to look just like a Dutch coffee-shop menu. ..........

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Beware the $7500 homebuyer tax credit

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Washington policy makers and housing industry insiders hope a new tax credit for first-time home buyers will get the moribund housing market moving again.

But most analysts agree that the program is more of a band-aid than a cure-all for the battered real estate market. What's more, others are quick to point out that the credit must be repaid, which means it's actually an interest-free loan that could get some homeowners in trouble.

"It's one of those things that are more complicated than it seems at first blush, said Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy for the Consumer Federation of America. "Consumers have to make sure they understand the credit thoroughly.

The $7,500 credit is for people buying their first homes, and was passed as part of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 and signed into law in July. To qualify for the full $7,500, individuals must earn less than $75,000 annually, while couples may earn up to $150,000. Buyers with income of between $95,000 and $170,000 are eligible for a partial credit.

The Senate Finance Committee estimates that about 1.6 million people will use the credit.

The housing industry pushed for the program. "Breaking the log jam of unsold homes is something we are very much behind," said Richard Dugas, president of builder Pulte Homes, at a news conference to discuss the program. First time home buyers represented about 20% of the market for new homes in 2007.

Realtors are also behind the credit. "[It] will help chip away at inventory levels, stabilize prices and spur [sales] activity," said Richard A. Smith, CEO of Realogy, the parent company of both Coldwell Banker and Century 21.

The industry has had success with tax credits in the past. In 1975, Congress passed a $2,000 credit for home buyers (about $8,200 in today's dollars).

"Buyers flocked to market and cleared out a then-record inventory of homes," said NAHB president Sandy Dunn. But that credit did not have to be repaid.

And the impact should extend beyond first time home buyers, according to Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. A boost in demand for starter homes means that those sellers will be able to trade up to bigger, more expensive places, and so on up the chain.

How it works

Buyers who have not owned a home in the past three years can take a tax credit worth 10% of a home's sale price, up to $7,500, whichever is smaller.

The credit is good for homes closed on after April 9, 2008 and before July 1, 2009, and can be taken on taxes filed during 2008 or 2009. Even buyers who bought a home before the bill passed, but after April 9, can claim the credit.

Unlike tax deductions, which only offset taxes by lowering taxable income, the tax credit is a straight dollar-for-dollar deduction of your tax bill. So a buyer who would ordinarily pay $8,000 in taxes would pay just $500.

It's also "refundable," which means if a buyer's taxes are less than $7,500, the government will send them a check for the difference. For example, if a couple's income generates a tax bill of $5,000, the government will refund all of that plus $2,500.

Buyers must to start paying back the loan within two years, at a rate of no more than $500 a year for 15 years. When the the home is sold, any outstanding balance will be repaid from the profit; if it's sold at a loss and the difference will be forgiven.

And some argue that mortgage lenders will take the credit into consideration, making it easier for buyers to get a loan.

"[The $7,500 reserve] will make borrowers less likely to fall into default," said Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board, since it gives them a nest egg should they run into trouble. Still, that assumes that buyers will sock the $7,500 away rather than spend it.

No cure

Indeed, the credit comes with plenty of caveats from economists and industry analysts.

"It's not going to provide first-time home buyers with cash up front," said the Consumer Federation of America's Allen Fishbein. "You have to apply to get the credit after the fact. There's a delay before you get the financial advantage."

And there are concerns that borrowers may treat the credit as a windfall, spending it as if it doesn't have to be repaid.

"It may appear to be free money," said Fishbein. "Consumers have to have their eyes open about how this works."

Other economists caution that while the credit may be helpful, it's hardly a solution to the crisis.

"It will not turn things around," said Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute. "Given the economy, it will only push a precious few first-time home buyers over the edge right now."

Plummeting home prices will blunt any impact that the credit may have, according to Nicholas Retsinas, director of the Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. As far as he's concerned, the market is simply too soft right now for a modest measure like this to make a big difference.

"The challenge right now is as much willingness to buy as affordability," he said. "The market still has this psychological barrier because people think prices will be lower tomorrow. I don't think this can overcome that barrier." To top of page

Injured? Stem Cells may be the cure

Doctors might soon be able to regrow injured muscles, tendons and bones without invasive surgery, simply by injecting a person's own stem cells into the site of an injury. Veterinarians are already doing it with injured horses, and research into human applications is well under way.

The National Institutes for Health seem to think regenerating human muscle and bone using a person's own adult stem cells is nearly ready for prime time. Last week, the NIH announced to its staff that it's creating a bone marrow-stem cell transplant center within the National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Researchers at the NIH labs in Bethesda, Maryland, are already growing human muscle, cartilage and spinal disks in vitro. The tissue isn't mechanically sound yet, says lead researcher Rocky Tuan, but that will come with further work.

"I have a piece of tissue that looks like a spinal disc, a sand bag, tough as nails on the outside and like sand on the inside," says Tuan, a Ph.D. and the senior investigator in the Cartilage and Orthopedics branch of the NIAMS. "The mechanical properties are lousy, but it's a beginning."

While the use of stem cells harvested from human embryos has been getting the most media attention, scientists and doctors have also been working with adult stem cells that also have the ability to become one with their environment and to replicate as cells of their adopted tissue. Using adult stem cells -- grown inside the body or in the lab -- has become accepted in the veterinary community, and horses have benefited greatly. Researchers are working to bring those same benefits to humans, but there are still hurdles left to clear.

The NIH project comes in part from what veterinarians have learned from injecting adult stem cells into valuable horses who've suffered injuries. In many cases, those horses' careers were saved when the stem cells regrew damaged tendons and ligaments.

Rodrigo Vazquez, a Southern California veterinarian, has been using adult stem cells to regrow damaged muscles in horses for several years. It's a fairly common procedure in the veterinary arena, and the results are impressive: One of Vazquez's patients is participating in this year's Olympics Dressage events; another is a prize-winning jumper.

The procedure is simple and straightforward. Inside a surgical suite at his equine hospital, Vazquez removes blood full of adult stem cells from the sternum of the anesthetized horse.

Then he rolls his stool to the other end of the horse, where ultrasound data has helped guide needles into the exact areas on the rear leg where the beautiful horse's ligaments are torn. He injects the stem cells into those spots.

"A few years ago, these injuries were career-ending," Vazquez says. Not any more. "In a month, the torn tissue will be completely regrown and healed."

Vazquez would like to put himself in his patients' place. He has had surgery several times for spinal injuries he incurred while lifting horses. Human medicine, unable to regrow or heal the injured spine, simply fuses the bone and tissue through a surgical procedure. At best, the surgery relieves some of the pain and restores some mobility. But it's not a true repair.

"I wish I could have had a procedure like this," Vazquez says of the treatment he gives horses. "This will lead to human treatments, but they can't move as fast as we can."

Tuan, who is using stem cells to cultivate experimental tendons and disks in his lab, thinks it's about time to look to treating humans.

An emerging body of scientific studies from all over the world -- including a cardiac study under way in Miami and a pediatric ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) study at the Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital of Boston -- is showing that using a patient's own stem cells can prompt the growth of new muscle, from the knee to the heart. And the precursor step, using platelet-rich plasma for injuries, is on the verge of becoming mainstream.

Adult stem cells, particularly mesenchymal cells that come from muscle, bone and fat, are cells with a powerful ability to replicate and not a lot of personal identity. They easily take on the characteristics of surrounding cells and they tend to grow quickly once they get there. Ultrasounds of Vazquez's horses, for example, show regeneration of muscle in four to six weeks.

The final product is this cartilage-like tissue grown around the scaffolding by NIH scientists. Tuan says the tissue resembles the human version, but may not be mechanically sound -- yet.
Courtesy NIAMS

Adult stem cells can be found all over the body, in bone and marrow. Tuan says they're also found in tonsils and in the placenta and umbilical cord, which suggest that the discarded body parts can be stored for later use.

Because researchers are using autologous cells -- from the patient's own body -- the research is not controversial. No one has challenged the ethics or funding of adult stem cell research the way embryonic stem cell studies have been challenged. And because adult stem cells are native to the patient's own body, the chances of a patient rejecting them are slim to none.

Tuan and his team have been able to coach adult stem cells to form muscle and disks using goo from the small intestine and a polymer scaffold to tell cells how to grow. But, he cautions, the primitive structures aren't ready to go into humans.

"After a few weeks (of lab growth), it will turn into something that resembles a tendon, but it has to be the mechanical equivalent and we don't know that we're there," Tuan says. "Stem cells are very promising, but what they do for horses may not work so well for humans because humans are the hardest animal to rebuild."

Once they're perfected, Tuan sees a day when the tendons will change the dreaded surgery for torn anterior cruciate ligaments that sideline up to a quarter-million people in the United States and Canada every year.

"Often, that injury is a complete tear -- the ligament is snapped in two and the ends ball up and even if you untangle them and pull them together, they won't heal," he says. "So they take part of the patella tendon, which is short and tough, and stretch it and staple it to the bones. So not only is your ACL not working too well and you have to stretch it out, but your knee hurts like crazy."

"If we can learn to grow a tendon that works right, or figure out how to make the ACL heal back together, we can save a lot of people a lot of pain," he says.

In fact, doctors are already treating people with adult stem cells. Bone marrow transplants for cancer patients are basically stem cell therapy. But the marrow often comes from other people, and its primary purpose is to boost a weakened immune system, not to generate tissue.

And treating with platelet-rich plasma -- a blood product made by spinning a patient's blood in a centrifuge to concentrate the platelets -- is already in limited use and is becoming more widely accepted as a safe therapy. PRP is routinely used in cardiac surgery, where applying it to a cut sternum before closing has been shown to cut the infection rate in half. The plasma has growth factors that also promote healing.

"PRP helps recruit stem cells to the injury," says Dr. Allan Mishra, who has used PRP on its own and as part of surgery in sports injuries -- including treating tennis elbow and getting Stanford football player James McGillicuddy's patellar tendon to heal after his second surgery. "The body knows how to heal itself -- we're speeding up and concentrating the process."

Last year, Mishra wrapped up a study where he used platelet-rich plasma to treat the 20 worst tennis-elbow injuries he'd culled from more than 100 volunteers. "Ninety-three percent got better with a single injection and stayed better for two years," Mishra says.

The treatments are about one-tenth of the cost of surgery, or about $2,000 to $2,500, he says. The patient's blood is drawn, centrifuged by a specialist called a perfusionist, and injected, all in one visit. "I will guess that five years from now, insurance companies won't authorize surgery until the patient has tried and failed at PRP."

The obvious next step is to isolate the stem cells and send them to work, both inside and outside the body, researchers say. "PRP is reparative. Stem cells are regenerative," says Angela Nava, a perfusionist who processes both animal and human blood for PRP, stem cell and other procedures.

But getting from animals to humans is going to take a lot more research, according to Dr. Thomas Rando, an associate professor of neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Rando studies the body's signaling systems that tell stem cells what to do.

"We don't always know how stem cells, when injected into some tissues, work their magic," Rando said. "Veterinarians don't go back and study the horse's tendons to figure out what the stem cells did to promote healing."

"There are all kinds of ways stem cells could work. If we could understand how they are actually promoting better function of the tissue, we might be able to further improve their therapeutic effects," he adds.

Stem cell treatment is not without risks, researchers say. The worst-case scenario is that the stem cells could cause cancer -- or become cancerous themselves.

"You're putting in cells that want to grow. That has to be under control," Rando says. "Or we can end up with cancer."

Tuan also says that researchers don't entirely trust stem cells and their ability to adapt and grow.

"There's a nagging feeling that there's a cancer stem cell, that when it's agitated by exposure to carcinogens or radiation or something, it goes nuts, and that we can't identify it from the other stem cells," he says. "How do you find this bad boy and pull him out?

"And there's a nagging worry it's the same cell. We only know these cells by what they've done, and by the time they've become cancer, it's too late."

Pakistani Scientists come up with way to boost bandwidth


Credit: Technology Review

Internet access is growing steadily in developing nations, but limited infrastructure means that at times connections can still be painfully slow. A major bottleneck for these countries is the need to force a lot of traffic through international links, which typically have relatively low bandwidth.

Now computer scientists in Pakistan are building a system to boost download speeds in the developing world by letting people effectively share their bandwidth. Software chops up popular pages and media files, allowing users to grab them from each other, building a grassroots Internet cache.

In developed countries, Internet service providers (ISPs) create Web caches--machines that copy and store content locally--to boost their customers' browsing speeds. When a user wants to view a popular website, the information can be pulled from the cache instead of from the computer hosting the website, which may be on the other side of the planet and busy with requests. Similar services are offered by content distribution companies such as Akamai, based in Cambridge, MA. High-traffic sites pay Akamai to host copies of their content in multiple locations, and users are automatically served up a copy of the site from the cache closest to them.

In countries like Pakistan, Internet connections are generally slow and expensive, and few ISPs offer effective caching services, limiting access to information--one reason why the United Nations has made improving Internet connectivity worldwide one of its Millennium Development Goals. None of Pakistan's small ISPs cache much data, and traffic is often routed through key Internet infrastructure in other nations.

"In Pakistan, almost all the traffic leaves the country," says Umar Saif, a computer scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). That's the case even when a Pakistani user is browsing websites hosted in his or her own country. "The packets can get routed all the way through New York and then back to Pakistan," Saif says.

So Saif's team at LUMS is developing DonateBandwidth, a system inspired by the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol that is popular for trading large music, film, and program files. With BitTorrent, people's computers swap small pieces of a file during download, reducing the strain placed on the original source.

DonateBandwidth works in much the same way but lets people share more than just large files. When users try to access a website or download a file, a DonateBandwidth program running on their machine checks first with the peer-to-peer cache to see if the data is stored there. If so, it starts downloading chunks of the file from peers running the same software, while also getting parts of the file through the usual Internet connection. The software could allow people in countries that have better Internet connections to donate their bandwidth to users in the developing world.

DonateBandwidth also manipulates an ISP's cache. "Say a person with a dial-up connection wants to download a file," Saif says. "When running DonateBandwidth, their computer starts downloading part of a file, while also sending a request for other DonateBandwidth users who have access through the same ISP, and whose computers have spare bandwidth, to trigger them to start downloading other parts of the same file." The file is then loaded into the ISP's cache, so it can be downloaded more quickly.

Saif compares the project to distributed computing schemes such as SETI@Home, which uses volunteers' spare computer power to collaboratively analyze radio signals from space, looking for signs of intelligent life. "DonateBandwidth permits sharing of unused Internet bandwidth, which is much more valuable in the developing world, compared to computing cycles or disk space," he says.

The more people who use DonateBandwidth within the same country, the more websites and files could be cached, freeing up the international link. In the developed world, "typical bandwidth savings due to caching are around 30 to 40 percent," Saif says. The program is not publicly available yet, but Saif's team is currently testing a proof-of-concept version and will collaborate with Eric Brewer and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, to implement it in Pakistan.

"In Pakistan and a lot of developing countries, they are building a good local network, but the international network is not very good," says computer scientist Saman Amarasinghe of MIT. "Having a system like what [Saif] proposed is very valuable."

"Misconfiguration of caches rings true with our experiences in Kenya and Ghana," adds Tariq Khokar of Aptivate, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, U.K., that works on improving connectivity in developing countries. "I doubt anybody outside of a developing country would have come up with DonateBandwidth."

Aptivate created another system, called Loband, that strips photos and formatting from Web pages to make them load faster for users in developing countries. "Loband helps with bandwidth but not latency," Khokar says, but "having content cached in country means the latency associated with an international hop is eliminated."

A Blueprint for Limb Regeneration- salamander genome


Growing limbs: The axolotl salamander is one of the only vertebrates that can regrow entire limbs as an adult. Scientists are now sequencing parts of its unusually large genome in order to understand the genetic basis for this capability.
Credit: Jeramiah Smith

In its own way, the axolotl salamander is a mighty beast. Chop off its leg, and the gilled creature will grow a new one. Freeze part of its heart, and the organ will form anew. Carve out half of its brain, and six months later, another half will have sprouted in its place. "You can do anything to it except kill it, and it will regenerate," says Gerald Pao, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, CA.

That extraordinary power of regeneration inspired Pao to probe the axolotl salamander's DNA. Despite decades of research on the salamander, little is known about its genome. That began to change last year, when Pao and his collaborators won one billion bases' worth of free sequencing from Roche Applied Science, based in Indianapolis. Now that the data is in, scientists can finally begin the hunt for the genetic program that endows the animal with its unique capabilities.

While all animals can regenerate tissue to a certain extent--we can grow muscle, bone, and nerves, for example--salamanders and newts are the only vertebrates that can grow entire organs and replacement limbs as adults. When a leg is lost to injury, cells near the wound begin to dedifferentiate, losing the specialized characteristics that made them a muscle cell or bone cell. These cells then replicate and form a limb bud, or blastema, which goes on to grow a limb the same way that it forms during normal development.

Scientists have identified some of the molecular signals that play a key role in the process, but the genetic blueprint that underlies regeneration remains unknown. Researchers hope that by uncovering these molecular tricks, they can ultimately apply them to humans to regrow damaged heart or brain tissue, and maybe even grow new limbs.

In order to quickly identify sections of the salamander's genome involved in regeneration, the scientists sequenced genes that were most highly expressed during limb-bud formation and growth. They found that at least 10,000 genes were transcribed during regeneration. Approximately 9,000 of those seem to have related human versions, but there appear to be a few thousand more that don't resemble known genes. "We think many of them are genes that evolved uniquely in salamanders to help with this process," says Randal Voss, a biologist at the University of Kentucky, who is working on the project.

The researchers now plan to make a gene chip designed to detect levels of some of these candidate genes, so that the scientists can determine at exactly what point during the regeneration process the genes are turned on. The team is also developing molecular tools that allow them to silence specific genes, which will enable them to pinpoint those that are crucial for proper regrowth.

Scientists also sequenced random chunks of the salamander genome. At about 30 billion bases and 10 times the size of the human genome, it is one of the largest among vertebrates. Most scientists expected that the extra DNA would be made up of junk DNA, long stretches of bases between genes. But initial findings were surprising. "Genes are on average 5 to 10 times larger than those in other vertebrates," says Voss. "The region of the genome containing genes is estimated to be more than two gigabases, which is as big as some entire genomes."

The extra DNA sequences sit within genes and are cut out during the translation from gene to protein. Much of this DNA comprises repetitive sequences not found in any other organisms to date, says Pao. However, it's not yet clear whether these repetitive stretches help facilitate regeneration or play some other role in the salamander's life cycle.

One of the key questions yet to be answered is whether the salamander has unique genetic properties that enable regeneration, or whether all animals have that innate capability. "If we come up with some totally unique gene only present in axolotl, that would make it really hard to replicate," says David Gardiner, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine, who is also collaborating on the project. He prefers to think that regeneration comes from a fundamental abilitylying dormant in mammals, which could be reawakened with some simple genetic prodding."Most of the tissue in our arm regenerates; it's just the arm that doesn't regenerate," he says. "What's missing is how you coordinate a response to get an integrated structure."

Frogs on the verge of a major extinction

Severely In Danger?: Photo by Joi (CC Licensed)

Lots of amphibians (a third to a half of all species) are dying, and their deaths are the breaking-edge of what many scientists are calling the first mass extinction since the dinosaurs checked out 65 million years ago, researchers say in a new paper published online in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists are not sure when this extinction crisis began—it could have started 10,000 years ago, or during the industrial revolution, or this century. But we are definitely seeing an extinction “spasm” right now, say the Berkeley scientists, especially among our clammy, froggy friends. This extinction is unlike the five that came before it, according to the paper’s authors from UC Berkeley, because it has nothing to do with any asteroid impact, or volcanic surge, or great sea cooling. Instead, it may have almost everything to do with us. Amphibians made it through last time, when the dinosaurs disappeared. But with new, people-driven pressures on biodiversity, the survivors are now some of the most vulnerable.

Almost 200 amphibian species have gone extinct in the last few decades alone, with several pressures adding to the crisis. One is a fungal skin disease called chytridiomycosis, which has been implicated in mass frog deaths in Central and South America, and is claiming species almost everywhere else on earth, according to the paper. Scientists believe the disease spreads on amphibians introduced by humans into new environments. Climate change is also implicated, possibly as a trigger for chytrid infections, but also as a force of its own. Many amphibian species are adapted to live only in a small temperature zone, and montane species are particularly vulnerable to temperature shifts that can shrink the small slice of mountainside they inhabit down to nothing.

Habitat loss is another important player, impacting 90 percent of the amphibian species the IUCN lists as at risk of extinction. Warming (and the weather changes that go along with warming) shrinks habitats, as does humanity’s constant bulging expansion over more and more of the earth. Research into treatments for chytrid is ongoing, with new results with beneficial skin bacteria, but with human-caused climate change progressing, and habitats shrinking, the papers authors close their report with the worry that we may not be able to make a dent in this latest mass extinction, and even if we can, we have very, very little time to do so.

Miscanthus way better than switchgrass

Crop sciences professor Stephen P. Long in a field of Miscanthus grass: Photo by Don Hamerman

Move over, switchgrass. There's a new miracle crop on the horizon. Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign indicates that a perennial grass named Miscanthus x giganteus can produce about two and a half times more ethanol per acre than either corn or switchgrass.

Switchgrass has previously been heralded as a promising feedstock for making ethanol because it's a perennial plant, whereas corn must be replanted every year. But when researchers led by Stephen P. Long grew all three crops in field trials across Illinois, they found that Miscanthus leafed out earlier in the spring than corn or switchgrass, and stayed green well into the autumn. What's more, Miscanthus grew well in poor soils. The study was recently published in the journal Global Change Biology.

The White House has called for replacing 20 percent of U.S. gasoline with ethanol. Producing that much ethanol from corn or switchgrass would require taking 25 percent of U.S. cropland out of food production. But with Miscanthus, only 9.3 percent of U.S. cropland would be required.

Growing Miscanthus isn't as easy as planting corn kernels. The grass is a sterile hybrid, so the Illinois scientists grew it by planting root-like stems called rhizomes. But Miscanthus science is young, so the scientists are hopeful that the plant's yields will eventually be even higher, and that it might be possible to grow this distant cousin of switchgrass on non-croplands.

Hyundai beats a Lexus- yep


It's almost hard to write: Lexus vs. Hyundai. That's the New York Yankees taking on the Albuquerque Isotopes — same game, different leagues. It's pitting an exalted brand name to which millions aspire, up against the bargain brand millions settle for. And yet despite that, putting the 2008 Lexus GS 350 up against Hyundai's audacious new 2009 Genesis 4.6 in a luxury sedan throw-down has resulted in one of the closest finishes ever in an Inside Line heads-up comparison test.

Yes, the Hyundai Genesis holds its own quite well against the Lexus GS 350 — without all that pesky prestige.

Directly Incomparable
Hyundai isn't shy about its targets for the Genesis. "While Genesis will compete for customers with cars like Lexus ES, Chrysler 300 and Cadillac CTS," the company stated in a press release about the car's pricing, "Genesis' performance capabilities and luxury features are comparable to sedans costing tens of thousands of dollars more." In other words, Hyundai's strategy for hitting the luxury market target is to hit the competition where it ain't.

So the Genesis is a large, rear-drive luxury sedan that's priced like a smaller front-drive one — at 195.6 inches long it's just 2.4 inches shorter overall than Lexus' flagship LS 460, but the $33,000 base price for the V6-powered Genesis is more than a grand cheaper than the base price of the entry-level ES 350. There isn't really anything directly comparable to the Genesis at Lexus or, for that matter, at any other manufacturer.

So the GS 350 winds up in this test for being the closest thing Lexus has to the Genesis in price, mission, character and specification. Still, the rear-drive V6-powered GS 350 is somewhat smaller than the V8-powered Genesis 4.6 and it costs more. Way more. The Genesis 4.6 carries a base price of $37,000, while the Lexus starts just under $44,000. And if we had opted for a V8-powered GS 460 as Lexus' contender, the price chasm would have grown to more than $12,000.

As tested, the GS 350 came fully equipped at $49,670. The Genesis showed up with a $4,000 Technology package and a $42,000 sticker. That's a thick $7,670 price difference, in case you haven't already made the calculation yourself. Yet the Genesis essentially matched the Lexus luxury for luxury, gizmo for gizmo.

Quality Issues
Approach the Genesis and you're immediately impressed with how substantial it seems. The body panels are perfectly formed, the paint has a lustrously deep sheen and all the parts that are supposed to be shiny, shine blindingly. The styling is strictly conservative — it sort of looks like a previous-generation Mercedes S-Class — but the oversized lemon zester grille, large tires and sizable chrome dual exhaust pipes successfully give it presence.

Still, the lack of any brand identification anywhere on the car except its tail will leave some buyers thinking it looks a bit, well, generic. You know, like those cars in gasoline commercials where all the logos have been removed.

In contrast to the upright Genesis, the Lexus GS's shape is lean and athletic, with sheet metal that seems drawn taut over its chassis and a fastback roof line. The Lexus is also a tighter package inside and out, with 5.6 inches less length, 2.7 inches less width, 2.2 inches less height and 3.4 inches less wheelbase.

Beautiful? Not quite, but it does look sportier, and by design. The GS, along with the smaller IS, are the sporty fare at Toyota's luxury division, while the ES and the LS sedans are for those who would hire a driver if they could.

One thing's for sure; the GS 350 is built exactly as everyone expects a Lexus to be built. This car is a study in high quality.

Luxuriously Sporty
Inside, too. In the Lexus, every surface is supple to the touch, every control operates with switchblade precision and the whole atmosphere is transcendentally soothing — no mantra or altered states of consciousness required. And frankly, seats don't come any better-shaped than the front thrones in the GS 350.

In contrast, the Genesis' interior is where Hyundai's audacity is most obvious. With a dashboard covered in rich brown leather much the same way a Jaguar would feature burled walnut, the Genesis' interior is uniquely modern-looking without the stark asceticism of the German brands or the digitized, somewhat synthetic feel of the Lexus.

It isn't perfect, some of the plastic pieces that are left exposed are a bit cheap-feeling, the switchgear can't match the Lexus for tactile satisfaction and the wood portion of the leather-and-wood steering wheel is too slippery for its own good, but otherwise this is an interior as interesting as it is comfortable.

And it is comfortable. Although we prefer the seats in the GS, the front seats in the Genesis are very well-shaped, padded and upholstered. And they come with fractionally better legroom.

Hyundai has also done a fine job of getting the details right. The Genesis' shifter, for instance, has just the right heft and shape. It feels like it belongs in a car that wears an established luxury badge. So do its visors, cupholders and other seat controls.

Space and Luxury
Large rear door openings and more generous proportions, thanks to its longer wheelbase, make the Genesis' rear seat the better of the two. Not that it's very hard to get in and out of the Lexus' rear seat; it's just not quite as ample as the Hyundai.

The Genesis has a huge trunk with 15.9 cubic feet of space, 3 cubic feet more than the trunk in the Lexus.

When it comes to luxuries, both cars have virtually everything a modern automobile can have shoved into it, short of night vision and a personal masseur. Of course air-conditioning and all the stuff that should be power-operated is standard on both cars, but both also have optional navigation systems, although the system in the Lexus is slightly simpler to operate (Hyundai has come perilously close to cloning iDrive with its knob-centric central controller), and both feature optional rearview cameras that display what's behind the car on the nav screen. Both also have lots and lots of very smart airbags and standard stability control.

Strangely, while the Lexus has heated and cooled seats for both the driver and front passenger, Hyundai puts heat on both those chairs in the Genesis, but restricts the cooling system to the driver side only.

On the other hand, only the Genesis offers iPod integration. Frankly, it's a slow, clumsy integration that seems to spend more time hunting for tracks than actually playing them, but it's more useful than the cassette deck in the Lexus.

Engineered Like Other Cars in the World
Both the GS and Genesis are built around hefty steel unibody structures. Both have sophisticated multilink all-independent suspension systems both front and rear. And both cars showed up wearing 18-inch wheels and very similar tires. The Lexus wears optional 245mm-wide Dunlop SP Sport 5000 DSST run-flat, all-season performance tires, while the Hyundai's standard Dunlop SP Sport 5000s are not run-flats and only measure 235mm across.

However, there are major differences in their engine bays. The GS 350 is powered by Toyota's ubiquitous 3.5-liter, 24-valve V6 which, thanks to variable valve timing, is rated at a healthy 303 horsepower in this application. In contrast the Genesis has a big, honkin' V8 under its hood — packing 4.6 liters and 32 variably controlled valves — making a claimed 375 hp (when running on premium fuel). Both are backed by six-speed automatic transmissions that can be shifted manually.

According to our scales, the GS 350 weighs in 320 pounds less than the Genesis and that helped it score a 5.7-second 0-60-mph time and run through the quarter-mile in 14.0 seconds at 99.5 mph. The Genesis, despite its larger, more powerful V8, was slower, completing those same feats in 5.9 seconds and 14.1 seconds at 101 mph.

Pity the Fuel
Frankly, better times were expected from the Genesis considering its engine size and claimed output. But the Hyundai V8 lacks eagerness; it just sort of slowly builds speed instead of racing ahead — like the world's smoothest and quietest truck engine. In part-throttle driving, that's responsive enough. But it's an underachieving performance and the Genesis powered by a V6 isn't that much slower, hitting 60 mph in 6.3 seconds while operating nearly as silently and returning slightly better fuel economy.

In contrast, the Lexus' V6 is an overachiever. It may only be rated at 303 hp, but each of those ponies has been eating right, working out regularly and living a wholesome, clean-cut existence.

Getting the V6 in the GS may sound like a compromise compared to the 4.6-liter V8 that comes in the GS 460, but in reality GS 350 drivers will never feel as if they're sitting behind anything except a perfectly wonderful, quiet, silken and wholly adequate power plant.

A Matter of Degrees
But ultimate speed isn't what these sedans are all about. These aren't sport sedans like the BMW 5 Series or Infiniti M that engage the road and then go about the business of filleting it. They're luxury machines first, with just enough feedback through their controls to keep the driver from nodding off.

And they drive like the isolation chambers they're meant to be. These cars are quiet and smooth. Almost equally so. They both waft over road divots that would bounce other cars up and over two lanes, and their engines whirr along so smoothly that actually seem to smooth out any vibration in the earth's rotation.

In short, Hyundai obviously had Lexus in mind when it went about creating the Genesis. And the Genesis drives pretty much like a Lexus (outliers like the current IS F notwithstanding).

The Same, Only Different
Still, there are differences. Remarkably slight differences. On the road, the Lexus' body rolls more through corners, but its steering is more precise than the Hyundai's and provides better feedback. Blitzing in the Genesis, however, is helped by an easygoing ability to maintain super-legal speeds without ever losing composure, and a tremendous highway ride that's slightly better controlled than the GS 350's.

Luxury might come before sport with both these cars, but both are exceptionally stable on the road and capable of higher cornering limits than their comfort levels may suggest. And on our test track, it was all but a tie. The Hyundai stuck a bit better on the skid pad (0.83 vs. 0.81g), while the Lexus was a bit quicker through the slalom (65.2 vs. 62.6 mph).

Their brakes perform about the same, too. The Genesis stopped from 60 mph a foot shorter than the GS 350 (114 vs. 113 feet), but the Lexus' brakes were more resistant to fade.

In fact, the one significant performance difference came in observed fuel consumption. The Lexus drank premium at the rate of 22.9 mpg, while the Hyundai slurped it up at a 17.6 mpg rate.

Degrees That Matter
Helped greatly by its huge price advantage, the Hyundai Genesis edges out the Lexus GS 350 by a cumulative score of 68.5 to 66.3. It just doesn't get closer than that.

But remember, Inside Line's algorithms and criteria don't control for the intangible of prestige. And it could well be that in this status-conscious market segment, paying extra money for that Lexus badge may be worth it to a lot of buyers. After all, they didn't work hard all their lives to retire, take out a reverse mortgage and drive a Hyundai.

Though some of them may be shocked to know that now Hyundai can be mentioned in the same breath as Lexus without convulsive laughter soon following

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