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Monday, October 6, 2008

Five Best Media Converters


We've all been there: you've downloaded an episode of your favorite TV show to watch on your commute or stream to your living room, but the file you downloaded isn't supported on the device you want to use it with. Once a significant obstacle to enjoying your media anywhere, this problem is easily solved by any number of free media converters. On Wednesday we asked you to share your favorite media converters, and today we're back with the five most popular answers. Keep reading for a closer look at the most powerful and easiest to use media converters, then cast a vote for the one you like best.

Super (Windows)

Super is a free media converter that acts as a graphical front end to several of the most powerful command line tools like FFmpeg, MEncoder, and MPlayer. The application boasts extensive options for customizing your preferences with virtually any aspect of your conversion. The downside to that control is that Super's interface is cluttered and intimidating for first-time users. Luckily for most purposes, converting a file to the right format with Super is as simple as selecting your output format (e.g., Apple iPod) and just sticking with the defaults.

FormatFactory (Windows)

Format Factory is a free media converter for Windows that converts video, audio, and even images between formats. With a nice icon-driven interface for helping you choose the kind of conversion you're looking for, FormatFactory is one of the friendliest batch media converters you'll find.

MediaCoder (All Platforms)

MediaCoder is a batch media transcoder that converts video and audio from and to most popular formats through a powerful graphical interface. Like Super, MediaCoder is a front-end for a number of command line media tools, allowing you to get as simple or complex as you want with your conversions. MediaCoder is available on all platforms, but it's best supported on Windows. MediaCoder is also available in device-specific flavors for the iPhone and iPod touch, PSP and more.

HandBrake (All Platforms)

HandBrake is a popular open-source media converter that encodes video from DVDs to many popular output formats. Available in both graphical and command line flavors, HandBrake can't convert the range of formats the rest can—it's limited to MPEG video (that includes DVD video). HandBrake easily earns its place as one of the five best DVD ripping tools, but it doesn't have the versatility of many of the other applications featured in this Hive.

FFmpeg (All Platforms)

FFmpeg is free, cross platform command-line encoding tool that powers many of the more popular graphical applications in this Hive Five. While FFmpeg has more of a learning curve than the rest, it's also undeniably powerful and flexible. If converting your media from the command line with FFmpeg appeals to you, check out how to FFmpeg your way to media conversion bliss.


This week's big honorable mention goes to VisualHub, a Mac OS X conversion tool that lost its place in the top five because it mysteriously closed its doors between the time we put out the Hive Five Call and now.

Ancient Peru pyramid spotted by satellite

Image: Satellite image of Peru pyramid
National Research Council, Italy
In this satellite image, the white arrows show the buried pyramid and the black arrows other structures which have yet to be investigated.
INTERACTIVE
Image: Egypt
Discovering ancient treasures from space
Satellite images help scientists detect clues that lead to archaeological finds on Earth.
MSN Tracking Image

New remote-sensing technology reveals huge structure beneath surface
By Rossella Lorenzi
Discovery Channel

A new remote sensing technology has peeled away layers of mud and rock near Peru's Cahuachi desert to reveal an ancient adobe pyramid, Italian researchers announced on Friday at a satellite imagery conference in Rome.

Nicola Masini and Rosa Lasaponara of Italy's National Research Council (CNR) discovered the pyramid by analyzing images from the satellite Quickbird, which they used to penetrate the Peruvian soil.

The researchers investigated a test area along the river Nazca. Covered by plants and grass, it was about a mile away from Cahuachi's archaeological site, which contains the remains of what is believed to be the world's biggest mud city.

Via Quickbird, Masini and colleagues collected high-resolution infrared and multispectral images. After the researchers optimized the data with special algorithms, the result was a detailed visualization of a pyramid extending over a 97,000-square-foot (9,000-square-meter) area.

The discovery doesn't come as a surprise to archaeologists, since some 40 mounds at Cahuachi are believed to contain the remains of important structures.

"We know that many buildings are still buried under Cahuachi's sands, but until now, it was almost impossible to exactly locate them and detect their shape from an aerial view," Masini told Discovery News. "The biggest problem was the very low contrast between adobe, which is sun-dried earth, and the background subsoil."

Cahuachi is the best-known site of the Nazca civilization, which flourished in Peru between the first century B.C. and the fifth century A.D. and slid into oblivion by the time the Inca Empire rose to dominate the Andes.

Famous for carving in the Peruvian desert hundreds of geometric lines and images of animals and birds that are best viewed from the air, the Nazca people built Cahuachi as a ceremonial center, molding pyramids, temples and plazas from the desert itself.

There, priests led ceremonies including human sacrifices, drawing people from across the region.

Between the year 300 and 350, two natural disasters — a powerful flood and a devastating earthquake — hit Cahuachi. The site lost its sacred power to the Nazca, who then abandoned the area.

But before leaving, they sealed all monuments and buried them under the desert sand.

"Up to now, we have completely unearthed and restored a huge asymmetrical pyramid, known as the Grand Pyramid. A terraced temple and a smaller pyramid are in an advanced state of excavation," Giuseppe Orefici, an archaeologist who has spent decades excavating Cahuachi and has also worked with the CNR researchers, wrote in the conference paper.

Featuring a 300-by-328-foot base, the newly discovered pyramid consists of at least "four degrading terraces which suggest a truncated pyramid similar to the Grand Pyramid." With seven levels, this imposing monument was sculpted from the landscape and enhanced by large adobe walls.

"This is an interesting finding. As with the Grand Pyramid, it is likely that also this pyramid contains the remains of human sacrifices," Andrea Drusini, an anthropologist at Padova University, told Discovery News.

In previous excavations at Cahuachi, Drusini found some 20 severed "offering heads" at various locations inside the Grand Pyramid.

"They have circular holes cut into the forehead and were perfectly prepared from an anatomical point of view," Drusini said.

The researchers are now investigating other buried structures next to the newly discovered pyramid.

"This innovative technology opens up new perspectives for the detection of buried adobe monuments in Cahuachi and elsewhere," said Masini. "Once we have more information about the size and shape of the structures, we might turn to virtual archaeology to bring the pyramid and its nearby structures back to life."

An earlier version of this report included incorrect measurements of the newly discovered pyramid.

New iJET Solar Cell is as Easy to Make as Pizza

An Australian scientist has developed a new method of manufacturing solar cells using nothing more than some nail polish remover, a pizza oven and a standard inkjet printer.

The iJET technique is so easy and cheap to carry out that it could revolutionize access to solar technology in the developing world.

In a recent radio interview (audio), Nicole Kuepper, a 23 year-old PhD student at the University of New South Wales, explained the process.

Firstly, she takes a standard silicon solar cell and sprays it with a substance similar to nail polish. Then, she inkjet prints something like nail polish remover onto the wafer in a set pattern in the same way that you’d print a normal photo. This enables the creation of high-resolution patterns on the cell at a very low cost. The cell is then metallized with an aluminum spray and baked at a very low temperature of around 550 fahrenheit in “something like a pizza oven.”

Kuepper went on to explain how solar cells are currently manufactured using expensive “high-tech, high-cleanliness equipment,” too costly for many countries in the developing world, adding, “we’re trying to do away with all of that so that so we can ensure that these solar cells can actually be manufactured in a developing country’s environment that you might find in say Ghana or Laos for example.”

Image Credit - Mulad via flickr.com on a Creative Commons license

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp take on Alice in Wonderland

I have a pretty soft spot for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I read it, of course, for enjoyment when I was young; I read it academically in a Victorian literature class; and I based my novel for my novel-writing course at uni on the original plot, creating a modern re-imagining of Alice set in the internet age (don’t expect to see it on bookshelves any time soon - it’s only half finished and I’m not sure when I’m going to get back to it).

I also really like Tim Burton. I think this started when my sister, and some ridiculously young age, decided that The Nightmare before Christmas was her favourite movie and deserved to be watched every single day for three months. His newer films are pretty awesome too.

So imagine how excited I am to hear that Tim Burton is filming a live version of Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter. They’ve just started filming here in the UK (I missed the extras casting call by a few weeks which would have been fun!) and there have already been some leaked pictures of Mia Wasikowska, the actress playing Alice:

Although certain die-hard fans of the original are already nervously speculating about why Alice seems to be on a boat (a scene not taken from the text), I’m pretty excited to see how this turns out. As someone who has already subjected Carroll’s classic text to a modern reworking (and with no where near the skill or creativity that Burton is sure to manage) I’m just excited to see another take on one of my favourite stories.

Alice is set to be released in March of 2010, and the cast is also set to include Michael Sheen and Matt Lucas. Helena Bonham Carter has also been seen around the set and is rumoured to be playing a role as well.

Final curtain for the Kimbo show

By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports

SUNRISE, Fla. – The legend of Kimbo Slice was built by beating bums in boat yards and back alleys not far from here. It came crashing down Saturday courtesy of a quick punch from a pink-haired journeyman giving up two inches in height, four in reach and 30 pounds in muscle and might.

One simple shot sent Slice to the canvas and from there some guy named Seth Petruzelli needed just 12 punches and 14 seconds to put an end (we hope) to one of the great sporting charades of all time.

It was just a matter of time before Kimbo got exposed. He was little more than a character out of central casting, a bunch of addictive YouTube videos and a lot of insane hype by CBS, which made him a headliner before he made himself a fighter.

He was the Kimbo the Cash Machine, everyone lining up to exploit the lie that this was the baddest man on earth as long as he could walk through hand-picked tomato cans.

Only this time his match with 44-year-old Ken Shamrock, who hadn’t won a fight in over four years, fell apart when Shamrock cut his eye in a light training session Saturday and was deemed unfit to fight by state officials.

In the scramble to find a suitable replacement that Slice couldn’t possibly lose to, EliteXC considered Shamrock’s brother, Frank, who was there to be CBS’s color commentator, hadn’t fought lately due to a broken arm and would have given up around 45 pounds. Despite all this, Frank likely would have submitted Kimbo in the first round.

When that matchup couldn’t happen (EliteXC said state officials wouldn’t clear him, Frank said they did but CBS blocked it), EliteXC promoters turned to Petruzelli. The Fort Myers, Fla., native had been dumped by the big-league UFC, was just 2-2 since 2004, had recently taken a year off to start a business, weighed just 205 (to Kimbo’s 235) and was so lightly regarded he was competing in the non-televised undercard.

Despite the oft-repeated propaganda that Slice was a man of “courage” for taking a fight with this smaller guy who was likely to stand and trade punches anyway, EliteXC paid Kimbo a cash bonus just to get him to step into the cage.

“We made it up to him,” said Jeremy Lappen, EliteXC’s head of fight operations. He wouldn’t disclose the amount.

For the myth of Slice, the matchup may not be a 44-year-old on a losing streak or someone from the broadcast booth, but really, what was the worst thing that could happen?

“It didn’t feel too flush,” Petruzelli said of the first punch that apparently didn’t even need to land squarely to fell Kimbo.

Make no mistake – or listen to the EliteXC spin – this was a disaster for Slice and the company. “This is MMA, all the best have lost,” said Lappen. True, but Kimbo wasn’t defeated by a crafty Brazilian jiu-jitsu master. He wasn’t caught in a submission by an experienced wrestler. He didn’t lose a decision after a three-round brawl.

Those would be understandable considering his novice status.

Kimbo was KTFO by a guy he absolutely towered over yet was willing to bang with him anyway. Not that Kimbo did any banging. Slice charged him (“He was like a truck,” Petruzelli said) but he never actually landed a punch.

In the end, Kimbo’s hand speed, defense and chin proved incapable against even an average mixed martial artist. Which was pretty much what every hardcore fan had predicted.

Not that CBS didn’t keep up with the Slice willing to fight, “anyone, anywhere, at anytime.” This was a 100 percent true statement if “anyone, anywhere, at anytime” means “no one any good, anywhere, ever.”

Slice seemed stunned and a bit saddened at the turn of events. After it was over, he initially began wrestling the referee. Whether that was a protest for the decision or because he was dazed isn’t certain. Then he walked around the cage complaining to fans about the stoppage.

Later he walked out on his CBS interview (“Kimbo?” asked a stunned Gus Johnson), although not before inviting America to an after party at a local nightclub. Then he showed up 45 minutes late for the main press conference, where he gave a quick statement and bailed.

“I got my first black eye,” he laughed. He later turned to Petruzelli and joked, “You knocked me out in front of my family; that’s (expletive) up.”

Through it all Slice remained the only likable character of this foolish farce. He wasn’t the one claiming he was the best in the world. He was just a working-class dude who figured out how to beat the system and cash in on his 15 minutes of fleeting fame.

He’s got kids to feed and bills to pay and right to the end, he was milking bonuses out of the promotion, a one-time homeless man holding the Tiffany Network’s prime-time programming hostage. Only in America.

He was the grand actor in the middle of a three-ring circus, a tall tale that would eventually come tumbling down under the bright glare of reality.

Where Slice goes from here is anyone’s guess. He can’t rebuild his reputation without stepping up in competition from the guy who just beat him in seconds. He can’t headline a card and have anyone believe he’s legit. He can’t claim he, “just got caught” when it wasn’t some wild, roundhouse right or sneaky arm-bar that did him in.

The truth was always coming for Kimbo. Saturday it arrived sooner rather than later, the money train grinding to a halt courtesy of a smaller, less heralded fighter that no one can claim is some elite champion.

No, this was it. It’ll never be the same, not for the fighter and not, perhaps, for his entire promotion that just lost its signature star on top of the $58 million it’s burned the past two years.

Afterward, EliteXC execs tried to paint a bright future but admitted they needed a drink. Lower-level employees used gallows humor about finding new jobs.

Kimbo just said he was going home to see his kids.

In 14 seconds flat, the whole mirage was gone.

20 ways to speed up your Mac

Computing power has increased massively over recent years, and for Mac users the switch to Intel processors brought new heights of speed and performance to even the most entry-level Macs. Thanks to the longevity of the average Mac, there are many thousands of older PowerPC machines still in use, dutifully chugging away day after day. And even for

read more | digg story

Prehistoric cave paintings took up to 20,000 years to complete

It may have taken Michelangelo four long years to paint his fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but his earliest predecessors spent considerably longer perfecting their own masterpieces.

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By comparing the ratio of uranium to thorium in the thin layers on top of the cave art, researchers were able to calculate the age of the paintings

Scientists have discovered that prehistoric cave paintings took up to 20,000 years to complete.

Rather than being created in one session, as archaeologists previously thought, many of the works discovered across Europe were produced over hundreds of generations who added to, refreshed and painted over the original pieces of art.

Until now it has been extremely difficult to pinpoint when prehistoric cave paintings and carvings were created, but a pioneering technique is allowing researchers to date cave art accurately for the first time and show how the works were crafted over thousands of years.

Experts now hope the technique will help provide a valuable insight into how early human culture developed and changed as the first modern humans moved across Europe around 40,000 years ago.

Dr Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at Bristol University who is leading the research, said: "The art gives us a really intimate window into the minds of the individuals who produced them, but what we don't know is exactly which individuals they were as we don't know exactly when the art was created. If we can date the art then we can relate that to the artefacts we find in the ground and start to link the symbolic thoughts of these individuals to where, when and how they were living."

Dr Pike and his team were able to date the paintings using a technique known as uranium series dating
Dr Pike and his team were able to date the paintings using a technique known as uranium series dating

Hundreds of caves have been discovered across Europe with elaborate prehistoric paintings and carvings on their walls. It is thought the designs, which often depict scenes of animals, like bison, grazing or hunting expeditions, were created up to 40,000 years ago – sometime after humans began moving from southern Europe into northern Europe during the last ice age.

Traditional dating techniques have relied on carbon dating the charcoal and other pigment used in the paintings, but this can be inaccurate as it only gives the date the charcoal was created not when the work was crafted.

"When you go into these caves today there is still charcoal lying on the ground, so the artists at the time could have been using old charcoal rather than making it fresh themselves," explained Dr Pike.

"If this was the case, then the date for the painting would be very wrong. Taking samples for carbon dating also means destroying a bit of these precious paintings because you need to take away a bit of the pigment.

"For carvings, it is virtually impossible to date as there is no organic pigment containing carbon at all."

The scientists have used their technique to date a series of famous Palaeolithic paintings in Altamira cave near Santillana del Mar, northern Spain. Known as the "Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic", the elaborate works were thought to date from around 14,000 years ago.

But in research published today by the Natural Environment Research Council's new website Planet Earth, Dr Pike discovered some of the paintings were between 25,000 and 35,000 years old. The youngest paintings in the cave were 11,000 years old.

Dr Pike said: "We have found that most of these caves were not painting in one go, but the painting spanned up to 20,000 years. This goes against what the archaeologists who excavated in the caves and found archaeology for just one period.

"It is probably the case that people did not live in the caves they painted. It seems the caves they lived in were elsewhere and there was something special about the painted caves."

Bison on the ceiling of the polychrome chamber in the Altamira cave in northern Spain
Bison on the ceiling of the polychrome chamber
in the Altamira cave in northern Spain

Dr Pike and his team were able to date the paintings using a technique known as uranium series dating, which was originally developed by geologists to date rock formations such as stalactites and stalagmites in caves.

As water seeps through a cave, it carries extremely low levels of dissolved radioactive uranium along with the mineral calcium carbonate. Over time small amounts of calcium carbonate are deposited to form hard layer over the paintings and this layer also traps the uranium. Due to its radioactive properties, the uranium slowly decays to become another element known as thorium.

By comparing the ratio of uranium to thorium in the thin layers on top of the cave art, the researchers were able to calculate the age of the paintings.

The researchers have also applied their technique to engravings found in rocks around Cresswell Crags in Derbyshire, which are Britain's only examples of ice age cave art. They proved the engravings were made at least 12,000 years ago.

Professor Pablo Arias, an expert on Palaeolithic cave art at University of Cantabria, Spain, said: "Until about ten years ago it was only possible to date cave art by using the style of the figures, but this new technique developed by Bristol allows that date to be accurately bracketed.

"We want to study how the people of the time behaved and how they felt and Palaeolithic art gives us a way of looking at the type of symbols that were important to them, so we need to know when the people who were making the art actually lived."

British skydiver makes first jump over Mount Everest

A British skydiver has entered the record books as one of the first to parachute jump over Mount Everest towards the world's highest landing zone.

Everest Skydive team member plummets to earth over Shyangboche airport some 120 kilometers (69 miles) north east of Kathmandu
A skydiver plummets to earth near Kathmandu Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Adventurer Holly Budge, 29, described the experience as "amazing, just spectacular" after making a safe landing at 3,900 metres (12,870 feet).

The Hampshire camerawoman was one of three skydivers in Nepal to make the first plunge from above the world's highest peak.

"We had one minute of freefall and while we were above the clouds you could see Everest and the other high mountains popping out of the top," she said.

The trio, described by onlookers are looking "like tiny birds flying in the blue sky", faced sub-zero temperatures and fast-changing weather when they touched down in the foothills of the mountain.

The event, organised by British adventure travel company High and Wild, will see up to 30 more skydivers from around the world perform the same feat in the coming days. Each of its clients have paid about £13,500 for the experience.

"It was worth the money - it is something that has never been done before," Ms Budge, who has completed 2,500 skydives and who jumped to raise money for charities in Britain and Nepal.

Skydiving at altitudes just higher than the summit of Mount Everest created numerous challenges for the project.

Due to the thin air, their parachutes were three times the size of regular ones, and the jumpers used oxygen tanks strapped to their waists.

They also wore neoprene undersuits and thermal gear to keep out the freezing temperatures as they leapt out at about 8,940 metres (29,500 feet).

"The organisers have brought a plane over from Switzerland, and the permits have been very expensive, as has getting everyone to the jump site," said Budge.

The oldest client slated to make the jump in the coming days is Alan Walton, a 72-year-old British partner in a bioscience company, organiser Nigel Gifford said.

"Although many are very experienced, others are making their first ever skydive and will be going in tandem with experts," said Gifford, whose company has permission to operate in the area for another 13 days.

The "Everest Skydive" is an event that has been 15 years in the making for Mr Gifford.

"It came about because I have been a Himalayan mountaineer and took up skydiving. I love doing both and I thought it would be good to marry the two," he said.

Krishna Aryal, an official with the logistical support agency Explore Himalaya, said: "They looked like tiny birds flying in the blue sky as they jumped from the plane. This is the first of its kind and has never been tried before."

Along with Ms Budge, the New Zealander Wendy Smith and Canadian Neil Jones were in freefall for nearly half a minute and then opened their canopies before landing at a flat drop zone after cruising over Everest.

New Zealand's Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa first climbed Mount Everest's 8,850-metre (29,035 feet) peak 55 years ago.

More than 3,000 climbers, among them a 16-year-old boy, a 76-year-old man, a man with an artificial limb and a blind person, have since reached the top of the mountain.

"It was stunning. I had never seen so many mountains before," said Ms Smith. "To be on top of the world was simply stunning. Thank you."

Citigroup seeks $60 Billion in suit over Busted Wachovia Deal

Citigroup Inc.'s lawsuit against Wachovia Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and their directors is seeking at least $60 billion.

Citi had reached an agreement in principle last Monday to buy Wachovia's banking operations for $2.16 billion, but Wells Fargo swooped in and announced early Friday a $15.1 billion deal to buy all of Wachovia. Citi immediately cried foul, prompting Saturday's suit.

[NEW YORK - JULY 22:  (FILE PHOTO) Pedestrians walk past a Wachovia bank July 22, 2008 in New York City. It has been announced on October 3, 2008 that Wells Fargo will take over the Wachovia Corporation in a deal worth over USD 15billion.  (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)] Getty Images

Pedestrians walk past a Wachovia bank in New York.

The company is seeking more than $20 billion in compensatory and over $40 billion in punitive damages from Wells Fargo for tortious interference with Citigroup's deal with Wachovia. Citigroup is also seeking undisclosed "relief" from Wachovia for breaking their deal.

Legal wrangling over the weekend prompted officials from the Federal Reserve to push for Citigroup and Wells Fargo to reach a compromise, one in which could result in the two carving up Wachovia, people familiar with the situation told The Wall Street Journal.

The New York legal fight resolves around the validity of an "exclusivity agreement" Wachovia signed when it reached its deal with Citigroup. A lower-court judge Saturday extended the expiration to Friday from Monday, but an appeals court on Sunday overruled that decision.

Without some sort of compromise, the fate of Wachovia could drag out for weeks or months in a legal battle that leaves the battered bank in limbo, distracted by controversy and further weakened by the mountain of bad loans that led to its government-engineered deal with Citigroup last week.

Citi shares were recently down 11% at $16.30 while Wachovia fell 9.7% to $5.61 and Wells Fargo dropped 3.7% to $33.25.

The lawsuit was filed Saturday at the Supreme Court of the State of New York in New York County. Citigroup released a copy of the suit Monday along with a statement in which the New York company said it "remains willing to enter into an agreement with Wachovia which Citi believes would deliver powerful capabilities of the two entities to their respective stakeholders."

According to the lawsuit, had Citigroup not reached its $2.1 billion deal with Wachovia on Sept. 29, the Charlotte, N.C., bank "would have failed the following day and the debt issued by its holding company would have collapsed, with potentially devastating implications for the stability and security off the financial markets."

Citigroup also alleges in the suit that the Wells Fargo deal "triggered the golden parachutes of Wachovia CEO Robert Steel and its other senior executives," enabling the executives to "bestow upon themselves a $225 million windfall."

A Wachovia spokeswoman said Monday that the company hadn't received the lawsuit.

In an email to Wachovia employees, Mr. Steel said the bank's agreement with Wells Fargo, of San Francisco, "is proper and valid. The agreement is in the best interests of shareholders, employees, creditors and retirees, as well as the American taxpayers, which is why our board of directors approved it."

The ongoing legal wrangling is "a fact of business life when interested parties disagree," Mr. Steel added.

Dollar Skyrockets against the Euro

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The dollar continued to rally against European currencies Monday but sank again against the Japanese yen as the credit crisis spreads around the globe.

The euro traded at $1.3510, down 1.2% from $1.3772 Friday. Earlier Monday, the euro hit $1.3471, the lowest level the currency has seen since Aug. 20, 2007.

The British pound bought $1.7369, down 1.9% from $1.7690. At one point Monday, the U.K. currency sank as low as $1.7335, the lowest point the pound has seen since March 13, 2006.

European governments are stepping up their efforts to restore confidence in large financial institutions in order to deal with the credit crunch.

Germany's government orchestrated a $69 billion bailout of property lender Hypo Real Estate AG on Sunday and Belgium worked out a $6.5 billion bailout of troubled bank Fortis.

"Concerns over the financial system in continental Europe are increasing and becoming more prevalent in the market," said Dustin Reid, ABN AMRO senior currency strategist.

Rumors of rate cuts or even a system-wide rescue plan that mirrors the United States' effort have been floating around. But so far the European bailouts and rate cuts have been more selective.

The U.S. House passed a $700 billion financial rescue plan Friday that gives the Treasury Department the power to buy up distressed mortgage-backed securities. President Bush signed the bill into law Friday afternoon.

There have been some concerns that the bailout will lead to a weaker dollar because the government will be printing more Treasurys to pay for the plan.

But the dollar has held up against the euro as the crisis deepens in Europe. However, the yen fared well in comparison to the dollar.

The dollar fell a substantial 3.5% against the Japanese currency to ¥101.22 from ¥105.32 Friday. Earlier Monday, the dollar fell as low as ¥100.23, the first time the greenback traded that low since Mar. 31.

"The yen typically outperforms other currencies during periods of extreme risk aversion," said Reid.

U.S. recession: After the bailout legislation was enacted, economists worried that the bill would have little immediate effect on the struggling economy. The credit markets remain frozen, home prices continue to sink and the economy is still losing jobs.

The Labor Department reported a net loss of 159,000 jobs in September on Friday, the ninth straight month of job cuts. Year-to-date, the U.S. has shed 760,000 jobs.

As a result, banks and investors began to speculate that the Federal Reserve will cut its key fed funds rate by as much as a half of a percentage point to stimulate the economy at its Oct. 28-29 meeting. Some even think the Fed will cut rates in an emergency meeting before the end of the month.

Lower rates tend to encourage lending and boost the economy. But rate cuts are also inflationary. So investors in the dollar may worry that their investments will devalue over time as the Treasury prints more money.

But some think that the dollar will continue to rise, even if the Fed takes action to bolster the economy.

"The dollar won't fall again in this environment," Reid said. "Thanks to the Fed's actions and the passed bill, the U.S. probably has the best chance to recover quickly and could lead a global economy recovery in 2009."

Dow Crushed- Down 700

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Stocks tanked Monday, with the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq falling to nearly five-year lows as credit markets seized up and European governments' rush to prop up failing financial firms underscored the global reach of the credit crunch.

Credit markets remained tight, with two key measures of bank jitters hitting an all-time high. Treasurys rallied, lowering the corresponding yields as investors sought safety in government debt. Gold rallied for the same reason. Oil dipped. The dollar jumped versus the euro and fell against the yen.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) lost as much as 604 points before pulling back a little bit, hitting the lowest level during a session since Nov. 24, 2003, when it touched 9629.83.

The Standard & Poor's 500 (SPX) index fell 7.7%, hitting its lowest point since Sept. 12, 2003. The Nasdaq composite (COMP) lost 7.9%.

The spate of bank rescue in Europe were reminding people that the crisis is a global one, said Todd Salamone, senior VP of research at Schaeffer's Investment Research. At the same time, investors were also digesting the passage of the $700 billion bank rescue bill.

He said that initially there was uncertainty about whether the bill would be passed after the House shot down the first version. Now there's uncertainty about how much it will help.

Investors are also showing disappointment that the Federal Reserve hasn't stepped in to announce an emergency interest-rate cut, said Ben Halliburton, chief investment officer at Tradition Capital Management.

"It looks like panic capitulation, but there's no telling how long it will last," Halliburton said.

"The concern is that we will roll into a very severe recession or even a depression," he said. "Purchases that require financing are extremely difficult to pull off currently and that's going to have a severe impact on the economy."

A CNN/Opinion Research poll showed that nearly 60% of Americans think another economic depression is likely. (Full story)

A measure of investor fear surged, with the CBOE Volatility index (VIX), or the VIX, at a 19-year high.

Salamone said this shows nervousness on a short-term basis is rising, but not enough to signal a stock market bottom is forming. "Fear is getting higher, but it's not at panic levels that have implied major market bottoms in the past," he said.

Bailout questions remain: Stocks slumped Friday, as Wall Street's worst week in seven years ended with President Bush signing the historic $700 billion bailout bill after weeks of contentious debate. The bill involves the Treasury buying bad debt directly from banks in order to get them to start lending to each other again. (Full story)

President Bush said Monday that the purposed of the package was to loosen up the nation's credit markets to "get money moving again," AP reported. However, Bush said "it's going to take a while," for the program to start working. "We don't want to rush into the situation and have the program not be effective."

Also on Monday, the Treasury Department issued interim rules for hiring money managers for the program as well as conflicts of interest.

But the bill won't help loosen up credit markets in the near term, and with cash still scarce, investors remained on edge.

The Federal Reserve attempted to address this Monday by making an additional $300 billion available to banks in return for a broad range of damaged assets. That raises the amount available to banks to $600 billion as of Monday and the Fed could expand that to $900 billion by the end of the year. (Full story)

Convert your Car to a Plug In Hybrid


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Plug it in, plug it in. Photo courtesy Hysterical Bertha via Flickr
Plug it in, plug it in.
Photo courtesy Hysterical Bertha via Flickr
So you want a plug-in, but don't want to wait for the automakers to build one? No problem, you can build one yourself -- if you're willing to roll up your sleeves or write a big check.


Several companies, like Plug In Supply and Hybrids Plus, are offering do it yourself kits. Entrepreneurial garages around the country, like Luscious Garage, Charlotte Energy Solutions and Advanced Vehicle Research Center, will install it for you in as little as half a day.

You'll need a little know-how, a Toyota Prius or Ford Focus, an electrical plug with extension cord and a fairly large sized cash roll to get this project done. The trade off is a clean, green driving machine and fewer trips to the gas station.

This article is a wiki. Jumpstart this article by adding your own plug-in hybrid solutions by logging in and edting this article.

Contents

[hide]

How it Works

The conversion may sound complicated, but it really only consists of adding a range-extending lead acid or lithium ion battery pack and installing the wiring needed to plug it into the wall. Some conversions require the removal of the standard nickel-metal hydride battery while others merely supplement it with an additional pack. The additional battery pack can weigh anywhere from 75 to 360 pounds depending on chemistry and type. If there is an additional battery, your spare tire might be removed to make room for it.


'Green,' as in the Color of Cash

Converting your car to a plug-in can get the most out of your hybrid, especially in terms of miles per gallon (MPG) and savings on gas. However, the conversion itself won't be cheap. The lead acid kits start at around $5,000, while the state-of-the-art lithium Ion kits can run well north of $10,000. The conversions will likely void at least some part of your hybrid's warranty. Considering the cost of conversion versus the price of gas, you may outgrow your car before recouping the cost. Buy hey, can you really put a price on saving the planet and oil independence?


Plug-In Toyota Prius Kits

If you really want to do it yourself, check out this open source PriusPlus project CalCars is sponsoring. Otherwise, break out your checkbook and give one of these outfits a call.

A123Systems Hymotion [L5 Plug-In Conversion]

Not only has A123Systems' L5 Plug-In Conversion been crash tested, but General Motors is testing its batteries for use in its planned plug-in hybrid, the Chevy Volt.

  • Location: Watertown, MA
  • Products Served: 2004 - 2008 Toyota Prius
  • Battery Type/Weight: A123 5 KW Lithium-Ion battery pack (180 lbs.)
  • Expected Battery Life: TBD
  • Install Time: About half a day
  • Charge Time: 5 hours [approx]
  • PHEV Range in Blended Mode: 30-40 miles
  • Must remove spare tire: Yes
  • Removes Prius' original NiMH battery: No
  • Cost: $10,000 and includes 3 year standard warranty and installation. Excludes $400 destination charge and applicable taxes
  • Dealer Locations: Boston, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Denver, LA, SF, Seattle and Raleigh


Plug In Supply

Plug In Supply starts accepting orders in early October 2008 for its own Lithium Iron Phosphate System, which should provide 15 - 20 miles of EV mode operation and last the life of the car.

  • Location: Petaluma, California
  • Products Served: 2004 - 2008 Toyota Prius
  • Battery Type/Weight: PbA (lead-acid), 360 lbs.
  • Expected battery life: 2-3 years ($1,000 to replace)
  • Install Time: 6 hours
  • Charge Time: 6 hours
  • PHEV Range in Blended Mode: 10-15 miles
  • Must remove spare tire: No
  • Removes Prius' original NiMH battery: No
  • Cost: $5,000. Shipping and installation is extra
  • Dealer Locations: California (San Francisco and Berkeley), Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico and North Carolina

Edrive Systems

Edrive replaces the Prius' stock nickel-metal hydride battery with an advanced lithium iron phosphate battery system with more than 15 times the usable energy capacity.

  • Location: Irvine, California
  • Products Served: 2004-2008 Toyota Prius
  • Battery Type/Weight: Lithium Ion (approx. 200 lbs)
  • Expected Battery Life: 5 years +
  • Install Time: about 4 hours
  • Charge Time: 6 hours
  • PHEV Range in Blended Mode: 40 miles
  • Must remove spare tire: No
  • Removes Prius' original NiMH battery: Yes
  • Cost: $12,000 installed with 3 year, 36,000 mile warranty
  • Dealer Locations: Southern California to start. Fleet and retail deliveries start in early October


Hybrids Plus

One of Hybrids Plus' Seattle clients managed to break its fuel economy record. The driver traveled 1620 miles on a tank of gas. That's 171 miles per gallon. Typically, after charging your hybrid overnight from a standard wall outlet, the average fuel economy approximately doubles until the battery is discharged. In other words, after a fresh charge, Hybrid Plus' Prius will get about 60 miles per gallon for about 50 miles and default to your engine's unassisted MPG rate afterward.

  • Location: Boulder, Colorado
  • Products Served: 2005-2008 Ford Escape
  • Battery Type/Weight: Nano phosphate Lithium Ion Cells (300 lbs.)
  • Expected Battery Life: about 100,000 miles
  • Install Time: About half a day
  • Charge Time: 10-11 hours
  • PHEV Range in Blended Mode: 50 miles
  • Must Remove Spare tire: No
  • Removes original NiMH battery: Yes
  • Cost: About $32,000 includes installation and a 1 year warrantee
  • Dealer Locations: Boulder, Houston


Plug-In Ford Focus Kits

Ford focus kits are just starting to hit the market. This is what's available so far.

Hybrids Plus

Hybrids Plus CEO Carl Lawrence says the company is working with Boulder utility company Xcel Energy on the Smart Grid Program. The Smart Grid Program is an experimental work in progress that allows the utility to buy energy back from vehicles while plugged into the grid.

  • Location: Boulder, Colorado
  • Products Served: 2004-2008 Prius [available Q1 2009]
  • Battery Type/Weight: Nano phosphate Lithium Ion Cells (75 lbs.)
  • Expected Battery Life: 100,000 miles
  • Install Time: About a day
  • Charge Time: 4 hours
  • PHEV Range in Blended Mode: 30 miles
  • Must Remove Spare tire: No
  • Removes original NiMH battery: Yes
  • Cost: $15,000 but does not includes taxes and is subject to change
  • Dealer Locations: Boulder, Portland

This page was last modified 23:08, 3 October 2008 by howto_admin. Based on work by snackfight.

Chinese Listen in on VOIP Traffic


Credit: Technology Review

That Chinese Internet companies censor communications is well known, but a new report from a Canadian computer scientist reveals a new front in their efforts to monitor users online. The study shows that users of TOM-Skype, a Chinese voice and chat service that is compatible with the popular Internet phone system Skype, have been subject to extensive surveillance. To make matters worse, the records of their chat conversations, as well as detailed personal information, were stored insecurely on the Web.

Skype has previously acknowledged that its Chinese partner, TOM Online, blocks chat messages containing certain politically sensitive keywords. The new findings, however, reveal a level of surveillance that goes far beyond this.

Nart Villeneuve, a research fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies, uncovered the surveillance scheme by examining the behavior of the TOM-Skype client application. He used an application called Wireshark, which analyzes traffic sent over a computer network, to see what happens when different words are sent via chat using the software. Villeneuve discovered that an encrypted message was automatically sent by the client over the Internet when some words were entered. Following this encrypted packet across the Net, Villeneuve uncovered a directory of files on an open Web server. Not only was the directory publicly accessible, but the data within it could be unlocked using a password found in the same folder. Within these files were more than a million chat messages dating from August and September 2008.

Villeneuve used machine translation to convert the files he found from Chinese into English, and he analyzed the contents to determine likely trigger words. The list he came up with includes obscenities and politically sensitive words and phrases such as "Falun Gong," "democracy," and "Tibet." But Villeneuve also found evidence that completely innocuous messages--one, for example, contained nothing more than a smiley face--were logged. This suggests that certain users were targeted for monitoring, he says.

larger text tool icon

Villeneuve's report, which was issued jointly by the two university-affiliated digital censorship groups, the Open Net Initiative and Information Warfare Monitor, reveals that some records even contained sensitive personal information, including passwords, phone numbers, and bank-card details. Villeneuve also found a file from August 2007 that contained usernames and IP addresses of people who made voice calls through the network, as well as the date and time of these call and the recipients' telephone number. Since the report was released, Villeneuve says, the Web server directory has been secured, and the latest version of the TOM-Skype client does not seem to exhibit the same logging behavior.

On Thursday, Skype president Josh Silverman said in a statement that, while the keyword filtering is standard procedure for communications businesses operating in China, his company was not aware of the logging. "It was our understanding that it was not TOM's protocol to upload and store chat messages with certain keywords, and we are now inquiring with TOM to find out why the protocol changed," he said.

U.S. Internet companies have come under fire for cooperating with the Chinese authorities in the past. In 2005, Yahoo was roundly criticized for handing over information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of a Chinese journalist. Villeneuve says that the discovery serves as a further wake-up call for foreign dissidents. "In a lot of cases, especially if you look at the Yahoo e-mail cases in the past, people really put their trust into these foreign brands that have privacy policies and talk about end-to-end encryption," he says.

"The real issue here is that if you're an American company and you value your public image, you should be very careful about who your partners are in foreign countries," says Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge, U.K. "It used to be the case that surveillance was done more or less on a per-country basis," he adds. "But more and more, the censorship may be on a per-company basis."

Jedidiah Crandall, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of New Mexico, who has studied keyword filtering by the Chinese government, says that the filtering discovered by Villeneuve is much more aggressive than the filtering applied to web pages. "For any given keyword and any given application," he says, "the censors have different goals that they're trying to achieve."

Anderson says users concerned about their privacy should be aware that companies often cooperate with governments. In the case of companies with enormous market share, he says, those governments that get access to their data could unlock huge amounts of intelligence and personal information.

Felxible Silicon Solar Cells


Flexing silicon’s power: Arrays of tiny silicon solar cells like the one in this photograph are assembled using a transfer-printing technique. These arrays are as efficient as conventional solar cells, which are bulky and rigid. Each microcell in the array is about 1.5 millimeters long and 15 micrometers thick.
Credit: John Rogers

Conventional solar cells are bulky and rigid, but building lightweight, flexible cells has come with trade-offs in efficiency and robustness. A new method for making flexible arrays of tiny silicon solar cells could produce devices that don't suffer these trade-offs. Arrays of these microcells are as efficient as conventional solar panels and may be cheaper to manufacture because they use significantly less silicon. The tiny solar cells could be incorporated into, among other applications, window tinting, and they might be used to power a car's air conditioner and GPS.

Researchers led by John Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagne, used a combination of etching and transfer printing to create arrays of silicon cells that are one-tenth the thickness of conventional cells. They demonstrated multiple possible designs for solar panels incorporating the microcells, including dense arrays flexible enough to bend around a pencil. "You could roll them up like a carpet, transport them in a van, and unfurl them onto a rooftop," Rogers says.

The process builds on techniques for making flexible electronics that Rogers has been developing over the past few years. First, the Illinois researchers etch bars about 1.5 millimeters long, 50 micrometers wide, and 15 micrometers thick from a wafer of monocrystalline silicon. They use a stamp made of a soft polymer to pick up the microbars and place them on a substrate, which may be glass or a flexible plastic, and then fabricate interconnects. Rogers found that a cell thickness of 15 to 20 micrometers struck a good balance: thin enough to be flexible, but thick enough to be mechanically stable and efficient. Conventional solar cells use a layer of silicon 150 to 200 micrometers thick.

Arrays of the cells have about a 12 percent efficiency. The Illinois researchers increased the arrays' power output by about two and half times by adding concentrators in the form of a layer of cylindrical microlenses. The best solar cells on the market convert more than 20 percent of the sunlight that falls on them into energy.

"This is a nice start at using silicon wafers more efficiently," says Howard Branz, principal scientist in the silicon materials and devices group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, CO. With their transfer-printing approach, says Branz, Rogers and his group have for the first time demonstrated how such thin cells could be manufactured on large areas.

Flexible solar cells made from another form of silicon, called amorphous silicon, have found a place in niche applications where low weight is critical. However, these cells haven't come into wider use because they're much less efficient than the crystalline silicon used in conventional solar cells. There are many groups working on new materials, including polymers for flexible solar cells. But these materials don't yet match the efficiency and durability of silicon, says Ray Chen, a professor in the microelectronics research center at the University of Texas at Austin. "I can't say silicon will be the material in the long term," says Chen. "But based on the data we have at this moment, [monocrystalline] silicon is a very robust material and has the advantage of reliability and efficiency.

A major advantage of making solar-cell arrays using his transfer-printing process, says Rogers, is the ability to control the spacing between the microcells. Sparse arrays of the cells are semitransparent and could be used as tinted, energy-producing window coatings. Rogers also hopes that the thin solar cells will replace conventional solar cells on roofs and in other places where solar cells are already found. If the Illinois technology does prove to be cheaper and easier to transport and install than conventional cells, it could remove some of the barriers to more widespread use of solar power.

Still, questions remain concerning the efficiency of Rogers's solar cells. To be game changers, these cells will need to have an efficiency closer to 15 percent, says Branz. There are existing methods for increasing the efficiency of monocrystalline silicon solar cells to more than 20 percent, says Rogers, and these methods could be applied to the microcells as well, although the University of Illinois researchers have not yet focused on optimizing the material's efficiency.

Wireless at Fiber Speeds

In the air: Researchers at Battelle used off-the-shelf optical telecommunication components to create a faster millimeter-wave device. Two low-frequency laser beams were combined to generate a single 100-gigahertz signal.
Credit: Battelle

There's no shortage of demand for faster wireless, but today's fastest technologies--Wi-Fi, 3G cellular networks, and even the upcoming WiMax--max out at tens or hundreds of megabits per second. So far, no commercial wireless system can beat the raw speed of optical fiber, which can carry tens of gigabits per second.

One way to achieve faster speeds is to harness the millimeter-wavelength frequency of the wireless spectrum, although this usually requires expensive and very complex equipment. Now, engineers at Battelle, a research and development firm based in Columbus, OH, have come up with a simpler way to send data through the air with millimeter-wave technology. Earlier this year, in field tests of a prototype point-to-point system, the team was able to send a 10.6-gigabit-per-second signal between antennas 800 meters apart. And more recently, the researchers demonstrated a 20-gigabit-per-second signal in the lab.

Richard Ridgway, a senior researcher at Battelle, says that the technique could be used to send huge files across college campuses, to quickly set up emergency networks in a disaster, and even to stream uncompressed high-definition video from a computer or set-top box to a display.

Whereas Wi-Fi and cellular networks operate on frequencies of 2.4 to 5.0 gigahertz, millimeter-wave technology exploits a region from about 60 to 100 gigahertz. These waves can carry more data because they oscillate faster. Much of the millimeter region is unlicensed and open for use; it has only been neglected because of the difficulty and expense involved in generating a millimeter-wave signal, encoding information on it, and then decoding at the other end. Usually, data is encoded by first generating a low-frequency wave of around 10 gigahertz, then converting it into a higher-frequency signal. The drawback is that encoding data on a 10-gigahertz signal limits the data rate to about one gigabit per second.

The Battelle team was able to better this by more than a factor of 10 using off-the-shelf optical telecommunication components. The researchers modulated data on two low-frequency laser beams, then combined the two. When these two beams combine, they create a pattern of interference that acts as a 100-gigahertz signal. "It looks as though we have a laser beam that has a 100-gigahertz frequency," Ridgway says.

In the past few years, researchers at Georgia Tech, MIT, Intel, and elsewhere have made great strides in developing millimeter-wave devices. Companies such as Intel have even started pushing for standards that could help develop interoperable technologies that operate at 60 gigahertz. And one company, Gigabeam, has rolled out products that can achieve around one gigabit per second using a point-to-point link over a few hundred meters.

Ridgway explains that using telecommunication lasers has two big advantages. First, they are high power, so the resulting millimeter wave is also of relatively high power. Second, the lasers have been engineered to be stable and dependable, producing a signal that doesn't fluctuate much compared with standard millimeter-wave sources.

Alan Crouch, director of the Communications Technology Lab at Intel, says that the Battelle work is further evidence that millimeter-wave technology could become increasingly important. "There's demand for more and more wireless communication solutions in this space," he says, adding that "there is strong industry interest."

But the research may be years away from being deployed in a product. Ridgway explains that, since the system has been put together from existing components, it's much larger than it ultimately needs to be. In addition, a property of the signal called polarization, which plays a role in encoding data, tends to drift during operation, which means that the system requires attention when running. But Ridgway hopes that, with some more engineering, these problems can be ironed out. "We'd like to get it to a point where you could just turn on and go," he says.

More Bad News About Plastics

The case again the material mounts as new research about its hazards to human health appears

Plastics Falling: Evidence of the material's dangerous properties is mounting. iStockphoto

Plastic. It’s the spring in your tennis shoes, the sheath on your burrito, the skin of your air mattress . . . And, unfortunately, it could also be the hormone disruptor in your endocrine system. This is just one potential danger highlighted in the most recent issue of the journal Environmental Research, which includes a special section showcasing six new studies of the effects of plastics and plastic ingredients on the body and the earth.

The culprits—some of which have already been circulating in the news recently—are phthalates, which can disrupt testosterone, Bisphenol-A, which mimics estrogen, and PBDE’s (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers), a class of flame retardants, which interfere with thyroid hormone.

The six studies look at everything from the concentration of plastics in the ocean, to the similarities in the way humans and rodents respond to phthalates. Two articles give some evidence that fetal exposure to Phthalates might affect human male genital development the same way it does developing rat—shortening the distance between the genitals and the anus, while others look at the effect of some of these chemicals on the rodent brain.

So far there is less evidence that these plastics harm adult humans, but much more that they could be harmful for fetuses, infants and children. Canada banned the use of Bisphenol-A in baby bottles earlier this year, and while the United States has not banned the substance, the FDA has recognized it as being of “some concern” to developing children. Phthalates, used to soften PVC plastic are restricted in some states. And PBDE’s have been banned in California and several other states.

This research reiterates that plastics are all over us—filling the Pacific Ocean, and lingering in the blood of ordinary people, and remind that the door has not been closed on assessing and revealing the potential dangers of these compounds, which have become so ubiquitous on this earth.

Via PhysOrg

Worried Buyers hit the Brakes on Luxury Purchases





Let's set aside the tailspinning news of domestic automakers' bottom lines and shed a tear for the little guys. Bentley is off "25-odd percent" this year, Aston Martin and Porsche have seen sales slip by as much as fifteen percent each, and Maybach is down eight percent — as is Ferrari. The one anomaly? Rolls-Royce is up five percent for the year, leading us to believe that there must be yet another seven-star hotel in Hong Kong that needed some taxis.

Luxury automakers are merely innocent casualties in a contracting market, where buyers with a net worth between $3 million and $5 million "are second-guessing their high-end purchases because of the economy," according to a spokesman for Bentley. In response, Bentley has been tweaking its event marketing to focus on more affluent prospects — Americans with a net worth of some $25 million or more.

2009 G37 Sedan Short Take


Redesigned for 2007, the second-generation Infiniti G35 sedan was good. Like, really good. Good enough to get all up in the faces of the competition and fall only to the benchmark BMW 3-series in its last comparison test. Good enough to have been invited to join us for a 40,000-mile fling. Good enough, in fact, to have secured itself a place on our 2007 10Best Cars list. But now it’s dead. And we don’t care.

We don’t mourn too deeply, you see, because the G35 has been replaced for 2009 by the G37. It’s still a second-gen G sedan, of course, but one that has been revised in several key areas.

Brains and Brawn: More mpg and More hp

Under the hood, the 306-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 has been kicked to the curb in favor of the 3.7-liter unit from the G37 coupe. The move adds 22 horsepower and variable valve-timing to the sedan’s arsenal, with output now standing at 328 galloping ponies. Torque rises by just 1 lb-ft to 269, but the smooth-spinning six serves up adequate grunt no matter where the tach needle is pointing.

Fuel economy is unchanged for the manual-transmission model, but the rest of the lineup—which now uses a seven-speed automatic in place of the old five-speed—sees gains of 1 mpg in the city and 2 on the highway, to 18/26 for rear-wheel drive cars and 18/25 for the all-wheel-drive G37x. We recorded our observed fuel economy, but then either a staffer took the logbook home for bathroom reading or a sticky-fingered Infiniti PR rep snatched it up in the middle of the night, because it’s gone now.

Curiously, the additional power didn’t do a lot for the G37 at the test track, where we logged a 0-to-60-mph time of 5.2 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 13.8 seconds at 104 mph. While quick, those digits lag 0.1 second each behind the best runs posted by its 3.5-liter predecessor (5.1 seconds and 13.7 at 104 mph). Admittedly, the results of various G35 Sports ranged as high as 5.5 seconds to 60 and 14.1 seconds through the quarter, and our G37 was a nearly factory-fresh car with a green motor, so there’s a chance the latest G could improve its results. Curb weight could also be a bit of a factor, as the G37 rang in at 3703 pounds, 120 pounds more than the slimmest G35 Sport we had previously weighed.

While it may not have shone on the test track thus far, the G37 sedan does burn brightly in the refinement department, an area where the G35 fell decidedly short. Infiniti quelled the G’s buzzy engine and quivering shifter somewhat last year, but things are even better now, with the only hint of engine harshness now at the lofty tip-top of the tach—redline is still 7600 rpm—rather than throughout.

Big Savings to be had on Holiday Travel

[Slowdown Hits Holiday Travel] Rock Resorts

Arrabelle at Vail Square, in Vail, Colo.

There's still hope for travelers who haven't made Thanksgiving or Christmas reservations.

Waiting too long to book a hotel room for the holidays is a nightmare, as procrastinators and bargain-seekers know. Popular hotels sell out months in advance, many impose strict minimum-stay requirements and rates are at their highest. But this year, many resorts still have rooms available during the usually packed weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. A number of them are easing up on requirements or tossing in extras to entice travelers to book now. Some are even discounting rates.

Podcast

Listen to a podcast about why there are so many last minute travel deals for the upcoming holidays and tips on how to book them.

More people this year are waiting to book. Resorts from Rocky Mountain ski slopes to Bora Bora report the 2008 holiday season is off to a slow start and hope discounts and freebies will prod reluctant travelers to act. "We should have been chockablock full and totally buttoned up for the holidays" by now, says Donna Michaels, senior director of product development at World Travel Holdings, with companies including Trips of Distinction and Vacation Outlet that sell packages to places like Hawaii and Mexico. Instead, she says, she has been inundated with discount offers and relaxed restrictions from hotels and tour operators looking to fill empty spaces.

Online travel agency Cheaptickets.com says average daily hotel rates have dropped in some of its most popular holiday destinations for stays in the Nov. 24-to-Dec. 31 period. Compared with last year, hotel rates have come down an average of 19% in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and 12% in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Club Med, Bora Bora

[Club Med, Bora Bora] Club Med

Some of the company's all-inclusive resorts are offering two free nights for guests staying seven nights during holiday weeks.

In California, the Avalon at Beverly Hills hotel is discounting rooms by 30% and offering a daily $30 hotel credit from Nov. 28 to Dec. 28. Wyoming's Four Seasons at Jackson Hole is throwing in a fourth night free for stays between Dec. 18 and Dec. 26 (they offered that deal last year only after New Year's Day). In Jamaica, the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall has a $250 resort credit for Christmas guests who book by the end of October; travelers can spend it on golf rounds, spa treatments or "Ritz Kids" activities, such as cookie-decorating with the resort's pastry chefs or making s'mores with Santa's elves on the beach.

Many hoteliers and travel agents still think the most popular resorts will fill up for Christmas and Hanukkah, which starts Dec. 21 this year; they figure travelers are just waiting longer to lock in their plans. The Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort, on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, still expects to sell out for Christmas week, even though bookings for that week and for New Year's are running 28% below last year at this time, says Viktoria Kuglics, director of sales and marketing. Just to be sure, the beachfront property is offering fifth and sixth nights free, plus free breakfast daily, to guests staying between Dec. 20 and Jan. 5.

Arrabelle at Vail Square, Colorado

[Vail Square, Colorado] Kor Hotel Group

Guests staying through a holiday, such as Christmas or Presidents Day, get one night free during a five-night stay.

Although few hotels are reporting cancellations, that could change as late-October deadlines for refunds approach. (Most high-demand hotels will refund holiday bookings only with 30 to 60 days' notice.) And Caribbean and Florida resorts have an extra layer of worry: Although hurricanes rarely strike in the region after November, the activity earlier this year made many travelers skittish and may prompt some to spend the holidays elsewhere.

Jeff Krudop, a travel agent with Travel Leaders in Fort Wayne, Ind., says that within the past two weeks he was able to find clients hotel rooms in the Dominican resort area Punta Cana and in Jamaica -- places that ordinarily are either booked solid or much pricier by now. "I'm surprised at the sheer number of people that are still planning now for Christmas," he says. "Normally people have it figured out six months in advance."

There is, of course, a catch. Airfares, which always peak during the holidays, will be even higher this year than in previous seasons. Nationally, airline ticket prices for Thanksgiving are up 27% from 2007, according to travel search engine Farecast.com. And since carriers cut back on flight capacity to many popular destinations this fall, seats in the U.S. are expected to book up faster. The Official Airline Guide says the number of domestic airline seats will decline by almost 10% in November and December compared with last year. Travelers willing to fly on off-peak days -- traveling home on the Monday or Tuesday after Thanksgiving, instead of Sunday -- are likely to have better luck finding flights at reasonable prices.

With airfares rising, the Horseshoe Bay Resort in Texas' Hill Country is getting a larger share of visitors driving in from Dallas and Austin this year. Overall, Thanksgiving bookings are down 9% from last year at this time, says Martha Heagany, chief marketing officer. The resort, which has three golf courses, is offering a holiday package with room rates at about 20% less than last year (it includes a $200 resort credit and daily breakfast).

Horseshoe Bay Resort, Texas

[Horseshoe Bay Resort, Texas] Bryan Konechne

This lakefront hotel is discounting 2007 rates and throwing in a resort credit and breakfast for holiday guests.

Even some of the most in-demand holiday destinations are feeling the slowdown. Holiday bookings at Vail Resorts are currently behind those of last year, says Chief Executive Rob Katz. A few weeks ago, the company started offering customers one night free during a five-night stay over a holiday such as Christmas or Presidents Day. The promotion is good at all Vail Resorts and RockResorts properties, including those in places like Santa Fe and St. Lucia. "In the past, you've seen more deals at more of the off-peak times," says Mr. Katz. But this year, the deal-making has extended to peak weeks as the booking window shrinks.

The calendar isn't making things easier. With Christmas and New Year's Day falling on successive Thursdays this year, many travelers have decided they will take one long weekend or the other, rather than a full seven to 10 days. And among those opting for a full week, many want to travel during the second week, spending Christmas or Hanukkah at home.

Several of Club Med's all-inclusive properties, where most stays are Saturday to Saturday, are full or almost full for the week of New Year's. But there are plenty of availabilities in the week before. "Last year at this time people probably wouldn't have found anything," says Kate Moeller, director of public relations. This year, "it's much more of a wait-and-see mode." In places like Bora Bora and Ixtapa, Mexico, Club Med is offering two nights free during seven-night stays during holiday weeks between Nov. 22 and Feb. 14.

Other resorts are easing up on minimum-night requirements. The Radisson Resort in Aruba has reduced its usual holiday requirement of seven nights to five. In central London, the May Fair hotel is offering its holiday "bed and breakfast" package on every day of the week; last year, it was available only on weekends. Christmas-week rooms start at $350 a night, the same rate as last year.

Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall, Jamaica

[Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall, Jamaica] Ritz-Carlton

The resort is offering Christmas guests who book early a credit that can be used for golf rounds, spa treatments or kids' activities.

Theme parks are doling out bargains, too. Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., is running about 80,000 visitors behind last year at this time, says Lisa Rau, director of public relations. The 5% decline came mostly among people traveling 300 miles or more. Christmas -- with live performances of "A Dickens Christmas Carol," a holiday light parade and a living nativity scene -- usually brings an influx of out-of-towners, but marketers say this year they've had to ramp up discounts and deals, like 2008 season passes available at last year's lowest price. Universal Orlando Resort, in Florida, says kids can stay free with a paid adult at five nearby hotels and get a free "unlimited" admission ticket.

Bill Thompson, director of sales and marketing for the Westin St. John Resort & Villas, in the Virgin Islands, says this summer he noticed resort guests were cutting back on the extras while vacationing. Parents came to the pool with coolers full of juice boxes and snacks for the kids. "Affluent people generally don't give [vacations] up, but they're not sitting at the bar having four or five drinks," he says. "They're having one drink and going back to their room and opening up their own bottle of wine."

The hotel is about 80% booked for the holidays as of this week, Mr. Thompson says; usually it would be sold out. The result is a "Santa Savings" deal, with room rates starting at $435 a night from Dec. 19 to 25, about 30% below last year.

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