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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Unique

3,000 Year Old Egyptian Vase Left in Garden For 20 Years

A terracotta vase which stood on a garden patio for 20 years is actually an ancient Egyptian relic dating back 3,000 years.

Egyptian Canoptic funery jar: Terracotta vase sat in garden for 20 years turns out to be ancient Egyptian relic
A pot used as a garden ornament for 20 years has been identified as a Egyptian Canoptic funery jar dating back over 3000 years Photo: BNPS

The 13-inch high ornament with its distinctive pharaoh headdress was originally designed to hold the internal organs of the dead as part of the mummification process.

The Canoptic jar, complete with cover, was left outside in a garden in north Dorset until its owner decided to have it valued.

Experts discovered that the lid of the ornament was modelled on the face of the Egyptian god Imseti, wearing a black striped wig.

The jar was designed to hold the liver and Imseti would have protected the organ for use in the afterlife, according to ancient tradition.

The piece was dated between 1550-1069 BC and is now being sold at the auction house Duke's in Dorchester.

The owner of the ancient jar, who does not want to be named, said: "It came from an uncle who was a bit of a collector and when he died about 20 years ago it came to us.

"We didn't know what it was and we have kept it on the patio and in the shed over the years. It was just used as a decorative piece, a lump of stone.

"Then I looked at it and saw it had a face and it looked a bit Egyptian so we took it in to be valued and was told it was from ancient Egypt.

"It was a great surprise that something that had been sitting there for some time unrecognised turned out to be so old."

The ancient jar is damaged and so is not expected to sell for more than £1,000 when it goes on sale on February 5.

But Amy Brenan from Duke's said: "It is very rare to have something such as this brought to us.

"The owner had had it in his garden for about 20 years without realising what it was. It is incredible to think how old it is and what was happening in the world when this was made.

"These jars were made to hold the organs of the dead and this one was for livers and had the head of Ismeti as a lid."

On Saturn’s Moon Titan, It’s Raining Methane


Titan lakesImagine a world where the average daytime temperature is -179°C, and torrential rains of liquid methane fall from the skies, forming vast but shallow pools that cover an area larger than the Great Lakes [ScienceNOW Daily News].

That’s the vision of the Saturnian moon Titan provided by the NASA spacecraft Cassini, which has been exploring Saturn and its satellites since 2004. In the latest findings, Cassini scientists have determined that Titan has seasonal weather patterns in which fierce storms fill up the methane lakes. “We see clouds that behave very much as clouds on Earth, and we see evidence of flooding on the surface, just as a lot of people in the [U.S.] Midwest saw last year” [National Geographic News], researcher Elizabeth Turtle said.

The researchers compared images taken in July 2004 and June 2005, and spotted both low-lying clouds and newly formed dark areas representing lakes of hydrocarbons. But the source of the methane that rains down through Titan’s thick atmosphere is still something of a mystery, as the methane should be quickly broken down by UV radiation. According to the researchers, the source most likely lies beneath the surface of the moon. There may be volcanoes releasing plumes of methane, instead of lava, from the interior. That methane, a leftover from the primordial gas cloud that formed Titan, could be plentiful enough to sustain the rainy weather [ScienceNOW Daily News].

The transitory lakes, described in Geophysical Research Letters [subscription required], formed in the south during summer in Titan’s southern hemisphere. But the seasons are slowly shifting, and researchers hope to keep watching the moon to see how rainfall and lake formation are affected. Says researcher Tony DelGenio: “The longer we stay, the more we get to see the seasons progress…. A few years down the line, in 2015, 2016, and 2017—if we last that long—we may be able to see the northern summer” [National Geographic News]. Cassini completed its originally scheduled four-year mission last year, but is now engaged in an extended mission through 2010. Since the craft is still in good working order and since it continues to send back fascinating observations of the Saturnian system, researchers hope NASA will continue to fund it past the 2010 cut-off date.

Image: Space Science Institute/NASA/JPL

Charges against George Obama dropped


From David McKenzie

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- All charges against George Obama, half-brother to U.S. President Barack Obama, have been dropped after his arrest in a drug raid, according to police in Kenya.

George Obama was arrested in Kenya on suspicion of marijuana possession, according to police.

George Obama was arrested in Kenya on suspicion of marijuana possession, according to police.

He was released on Saturday hours later, police added.

Obama was arrested in a Nairobi slum, and he was picked up with people who possessed marijuana, said police spokesman Eric Kiraithe.

"Being found with people who are in possession of cannabis is a petty offense," Kiraithe said.

Earlier, police had told CNN that Obama had been arrested for possessing cannabis and resisting arrest, which can carry a sentence of up to a year in jail or hefty fines.

"Police in Kenya do not look at criminals in light of associations with relatives," Kiraithe said.

Obama and the president barely know each other, though they have met. George Obama was one of the few people closely related to the president who did not attend the inauguration in Washington.

In his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," Barack Obama describes meeting George as a "painful affair." His trip to Kenya meant meeting family he had never known.

CNN tracked down George Obama in August 2008 and found him at a small house in Huruma, a Nairobi slum, where he lives with his mother's extended family. His birth certificate shows he is Barack Obama's half brother.

The two men share the same Kenyan father.

In the memoir, Barack Obama struggles to reconcile with his father after he left him and his mother when he was a child.

Barack Obama Sr. died in a car accident when George was 6 months old. And like his half brother, George hardly knew his father.

George was his father's last child and had not been aware of his famous half brother until he rose to prominence in the Democratic primaries last year.

Unlike his grandmother in Kogela, in western Kenya, George Obama received little attention from the media until reports about him surfaced in August 2008.

The reports sprung from an Italian Vanity Fair article saying George Obama lived in a shack and was "earning less than a dollar a day."

The reports left George Obama angry.

"I was brought up well. I live well even now," he said. "The magazines, they have exaggerated everything.

"I think I kind of like it here. There are some challenges, but maybe it is just like where you come from, there are the same challenges," Obama said.

Obama, who is in his mid-20s, said at the time that he was learning to become a mechanic and was active in youth groups in Huruma. He said he tries to help the community as much as he can.

Garden party: Kobe’s 61 sets MSG record



NEW YORK (AP)—Kobe Bryant knew Andrew Bynum was out, and potential taunts from Spike Lee and Mike D’Antoni could be ahead.

That gave him plenty of incentive to deliver a special night at Madison Square Garden—and he unleashed the biggest game the present building has seen.

Bryant broke the current arena record with 61 points, and the Los Angeles Lakers looked plenty potent without Bynum in a 126-117 victory over the New York Knicks on Monday night.

“It’s a blessing to do what you love and to have moments like this,” Bryant said.

Bryant teased and pleased a sold-out crowd that took turns booing him and saluting him with “MVP!” chants during an electrifying performance. He passed Michael Jordan’s opponent record of 55 points at the present building, known as “Garden IV,” when he hit three free throws with 3:56 remaining, then bettered Bernard King’s mark of 60, set on Christmas Day 1984, with two more foul shots with 2:33 to play.

Bryant, who also finished with the highest-scoring game in the NBA this season, left to a loud ovation after the 24th 50-point game of his career. It was also his fifth 40-point game here, where the Knicks played their first game in February 1968.

It saved him from a rough night with Lee, the director and Knicks superfan he is working on a project with.

“On a lighter note, I’m going to review this documentary I’m doing with Spike Lee tonight after the game and I didn’t feel like sitting next to him and hearing him talking trash about the Knicks, so that was added incentive as well,” Bryant said. “Seriously. He’s going to get an earful tonight.”

D’Antoni might, too. He’s a rival from past postseasons when he was coaching Phoenix and playfully sparred with Bryant as an assistant with the U.S. Olympic team this summer. Bryant said not to underestimate his desire to quiet the coach.

“We tried to do the rope-a-dope a little bit where he might shoot himself out, but he didn’t,” D’Antoni said. “He just kept on going.”

Pau Gasol added 31 points and 14 rebounds in the Lakers’ first game since losing Bynum, their starting center, for eight to 12 weeks with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee. They’ll be fine without him if Bryant plays the way he did Monday, going 19-of-31 with an array of tough jumpers, powerful drives to the basket and perfect foul shooting. He also hit all 20 free throws.

“He was on fire from the start and finished the game almost the same way,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “That was a remarkable performance.”

Bynum was hurt Saturday at Memphis when Bryant missed a driving shot, then crashed into his leg. The center isn’t expected to need surgery and said he was confident he would return in time for the playoffs.

Lamar Odom moved into the starting lineup and Gasol slid to the center spot to replace Bynum, who was carrying a tall black crutch, though he was limping along without using it. Odom had six points and 14 rebounds.

The Lakers reached the NBA finals last season despite losing Bynum for the final 46 games with an injury to his left knee, but they missed his inside presence when they were overpowered by Boston in six games.

Gasol and Odom were too big for the undersized Knicks, but the Lakers will get a truer test of where they are without Bynum when they visit the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers later this week.

New York Knicks center David Lee (42) defends as Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol of Spain  (16)  pulls down a rebound in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden  in New York, Monday, Feb. 2, 2009.   Gasol had 31 points  as the Lakers won 126-117.
New York Knicks center David L…
AP - Feb 2, 11:35 pm EST

Al Harrington scored 24 points, David Lee had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and reserve Wilson Chandler added 20 points for the Knicks, who had won three straight and six of seven, but didn’t have the firepower to stay with the Western Conference leaders in the opener of their brutally tough week.

New York hosts Cleveland on Wednesday and Boston on Friday. It’s the first time a team has played three straight games against opponents with .750 winning percentages after Feb. 1 since the Celtics did it in February 1995, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Odom made a free throw 14 seconds into the game to open the scoring, then Bryant and Gasol combined for the next 30 Los Angeles points. Bryant’s 3-pointer with 35 seconds left gave him 18 points and the Lakers a 31-26 lead headed to the second.

“He wouldn’t speak to anyone on the court. He was very quiet tonight. By the time he hit his first two 3s, you could see what he was attempting to do in the game,” David Lee said.

“It was very obvious to all of us by the middle of the first quarter that he wasn’t in a distributing type of mode or in a getting 10 rebounds type of mode, that he was going to try to score the basketball tonight.”

New York was down only one before Bryant returned from a break with 7:25 left in the half and took over the game. He scored nine points in a 1:15 span to make it 49-42 and had 16 points in the second quarter, giving Los Angeles a 65-54 advantage.

He hit the 40-point mark during a 15-4 spurt midway through the third quarter that allowed the Lakers to finally shake free of their Knicks.

Notes

Bryant and Lee both picked up NBA awards Monday. Bryant was the Western Conference player of the month after averaging 27.2 points and 7.1 assists while leading the Lakers to a 12-4 record in January. Lee won East player of the week behind his averages of 19 points and 15.3 rebounds, plus 53.5 percent shooting while helping the Knicks go 3-0. … Bryant’s previous best at Madison Square Garden was 46 points on Feb. 6, 2003.

Celebrating Groundhog Day

Mark Pickavance

Why do we still celebrate the movie Groundhog Day, 16 years after it was first released?

Each February 2nd I perform a small ritual, and this one was no exception. I wake an hour earlier than usual, at 6am to be precise, and using my bedside clock radio I scan the radio airwaves. It doesn’t usually take long to find a station playing the 1965 hit I Got You, Babe by Sonny & Cher. That’s entirely appropriate, as it is Groundhog Day...

Such is the influence of what seems a relatively minor comedy film when it opened in 1993, the last in a chain of movies that had brought Billy Murray and Harold Ramis from Caddyshack, to Stripes and Ghostbusters (I & II) before this apparently low budget affair.

I’m sure reviewers at the time might have also pointed out that the theme of redemption is one that Murray himself explored five years earlier with Scrooged, and in this respect, audiences had already seen him being bad and then learning the error of his ways. Yet, there is something magical about this movie which gets right under the skin, in a way that Scrooged, for all its schmaltz and witty dialogue, can’t quite equal. Perhaps it's the strength of the concept, or the deft execution, or the characters performances, but whatever happened on February 2nd, it’s stuck in our unconscious collective to be repeated endlessly.

For those who’ve been stuck in a burrow waiting for winter to end for the past sixteen years, the premise of this movie is frighteningly simple: Phil Connors is a selfish and self-loathing TV weatherman, played by Murray, who’s dispatched by his station with producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) to cover the annual festivities at the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. In this symbol of smalltown America, each February 2nd it's predicted that Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog, will emerge from his burrow and if he can’t see his shadow then winter will soon end, but if he sees it and scurries back in, another six weeks of winter is due.

Once they’ve covered the event in Connor's uniquely cynical way, they all intend to return to Channel 9 in Pittsburgh, but bad weather forces them to stay in Punxsutawney overnight, which sets in motion an unusual turn of events. Phil wakes the next morning and it is again February 2nd, something that happens every morning for almost the entire movie’s running time.

The first time through the loop Phil is actually too hungover to accept that they’re really repeating everything, but it doesn’t take him long to realise that he’s trapped in exactly the same day, with the same events, over and over again. He is aware of his predicament while everyone else is oblivious to it, curiously.

At first the dark side of Phil’s character emerges as he realises there is little point playing by any rules when the day is reset at 6am, and we are treated to the same encounters that he has on subsequent cycles where he deals with things in an entirely different way. The limit of 24 hours also limits the sorts of relationships he can build, even with inside knowledge about everyone in the town. He tries to form a relationship with Rita, but with their wildly different personalities it’s an uphill struggle. Eventually, the loop starts to drive him to thoughts of suicide, and he steals the groundhog and kills himself, multiple times in different ways. Yet, he still wakes at 6am the next morning; whatever happens that day, it’s undone each morning.

The turning point comes when he explains his predicament to Rita while they’re in the diner, where he can tell her the names and backgrounds of everyone who lives there. They get on much better than before, and Phil decides to become the man she’ll fall in love with, irrespective of how many Groundhog Days it takes. This is the true payback part of the movie, where we see Murray doing lots of good things for people, knowing when they’ll hurt themselves or mishaps will happen. He also decides to better himself, learning foreign languages, reading extensively and even learning to play the piano. This will eventually lead to Rita falling in love with him, which breaks the spell and ends the loop.

In interviews, writer (together with Danny Rubin) and director/producer Harold Ramis admitted that in the original concept Phil was trapped for 10,000 days, but as presented in the movie he’s a resident of Punxsutawney for about ten years. He’s also talked about the creative process, which at times was fraught. Murray wanted the film to be more philosophical while Ramis was intent on making a comedy. The end result combines both sides of this dispute, and is possibly what makes it something special. These arguments became so heated that Ramis has said that he and Murray have never spoken since, although I’m unsure if this is now true, as they’ve both been recently working on Ghostbusters: the Video Game.

It’s disappointing that they’ve not cooperated on film together again, because Groundhog Day is arguably the best work of both, as the performance by Murray snaps brilliantly into the manically comic constructs of Ramis. Phil’s repeated encounters with old school friend, Ned Ryerson, underlines this perfectly; the early ones are all Ramis-scripted and the latter ones are entirely adlibbed by Murray, to hilarious effect. Ramis even gets himself a cameo as theneurologist, but it’s a fleeting appearance.

Yesterday, I watched this entire movie once again, and it’s as fresh and imaginative as when I first saw it sixteen years ago. I can even accept that it has Andie MacDowell in it, even if in penance I now have to suffer her in those horrible L’Oreal ads, again and again. She’s not great, but this is Murray’s movie and she’s not so bad as to ruin it.

What watching it again also made me consider is that, since this film was made, the number of genuinely funny movies has been incredibly small. As a genre, the comedy movie is on its ass, and these were finer days for it. It stands proud as a demonstration of the exceptional comedy acting talent of Murray, the writing skills of Ramis and Rubin, and how a great idea should be committed to celluloid.

Each February 2nd I perform a small ritual, and this one was no exception. I wake an hour earlier than usual, at 6am to be precise…

2 February 2009

Fresh Look at Martha Washington: Less First Frump, More Foxy Lady

By Brigid Schulte

Washington Post Staff Writer

Martha Washington's rarely shown, silk-and-sequin wedding shoes, which once featured glittery buckles, are on display until Feb. 23 at Mount Vernon.

Martha Washington's rarely shown, silk-and-sequin wedding shoes, which once featured glittery buckles, are on display until Feb. 23 at Mount Vernon. (By Gavin Ashworth)


This just in: Martha Washington was hot. Or at least hotter than we thought.

Our image of the mother of our country, vague and insubstantial as it is, is drawn from portraits painted after her death showing a frumpy, dumpy, plump old lady, a fussy jumble of needlework in her lap, wearing what could pass for a shower cap with pink sponge rollers rolled too tight underneath.

But today, 250 years after Martha and George tied the knot, a handful of historians are seeking to revamp the former first lady's fusty image, using the few surviving records of things she wrote, asking forensic anthropologists to do a computerized age-regression portrait of her in her mid-20s and, perhaps most importantly, displaying for the first time in decades the avant-garde deep purple silk high heels studded with silver sequins that she wore on her wedding day.

Take that, Sally Fairfax.

History is about to be revised.

"We always see Martha with a withered face in her old age. But she was quite a beautiful woman in her younger years, and Washington loved her deeply," said Edward Lengel, senior editor at the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. "What's happening now is revisionist. But I think it's a whole lot closer to the reality of what she was."

Contrary to popular opinion, even among some historians who should know better, Martha was not fat when she married George. Yes, she liked to read the Bible, but she devoured gothic romance novels, too. She capably ran the five plantations left to her when her first husband died, bargaining with London merchants for the best tobacco prices. And unknown to most, while George was courting her she had another suitor, a Virginia planter with much greater wealth and stature. In a little-known letter, Charles Carter wrote to his brother about what a beauty she was and how he hoped to "arouse a flame in her breast."


James Peale painted this watercolor portrait of Martha Washington in 1796, and her grandchildren called the miniature a "striking likeness."
James Peale painted this watercolor portrait of Martha Washington in 1796, and her grandchildren called the miniature a "striking likeness." (Courtesy Of Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

"He was clearly sexually excited by her," said Patricia Brady, a historian who wrote the first revisionist biography of Martha a few years ago. "When Martha decided to marry George, she didn't marry him just to be a kind stepfather to her two children. He was a hunk, and I think she decided to make herself happy. People are just starting to see her as a real person."

The fact that so little is known about Martha and that she has been cast throughout American history as First Frump is, in part, her fault. In the days after George Washington died, she, as was the custom of well-known people of her time, burned all their correspondence. So we know George wrote two youthful love letters bursting with yearning and passion to Sally Fairfax, even though she was the wife of his good friend. We have a really bad poem he wrote as a teen to a young Virginia beauty ("Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun . . . "). We have no idea what he wrote to Martha.

Forensic anthropologists used the 1796 portrait to generate an image of what Martha would have looked like in her 20s, inspiring this painting by Michael Deas.
Forensic anthropologists used the 1796 portrait to generate an image of what Martha would have looked like in her 20s, inspiring this painting by Michael Deas. (Courtesy Of Michael Deas)

But each generation of Americans, Lengel and other historians say, has played its part in solidifying Martha's stodgy image, transforming her into an icon of demure Victorian perfection in the 19th century and, in the antiheroic 20th century, the mousy, fat, rich widow that dashing and virile Washington married only for money.

Emily Shapiro, a curator at Mount Vernon, wandered through the museum on a recent day, pointing to the most famous images of Martha. All of them are, as one historian describes it, of the double-chinned Old Mother Hubbard variety. To Shapiro, the white-haired images, painted shortly after both George and Martha had died, served to foster a sense of legitimacy for the fledgling country. "The country was still so young," she said. "I think it was reassuring to see its leaders as older, distinguished, stately and gray-haired people."

She stopped before a darkened case displaying Martha's wedding shoes, which even she and Mount Vernon executive director James Rees describe as a little sassy and definitely "over the top" for the time. Because the shoes are so delicate, they are displayed for only a few months every 10 years or so. The sparkly buckles are gone. And the once royal purple has faded to a soft lavender. But even after all these years, it's clear that these were some shoes.

"They were the Manolo Blahniks of her time," said Brady, the historian and author. "So much false information was given out about the stupid cherry tree and the wooden teeth, it's put this sort of a layer of dullness over him, and of course, if he's dull, she has to be dull. Nobody imagines that they were in love and in pain and liked to dance, that what real people go through, they went through."

In the 20th century, attempts to restore George's humanity inevitably led to fabrications and exaggerations about his love life and his military adventures, Lengel said. Early efforts to humanize Martha in the popular mind painted her as crabby and difficult to get along with.

In 1958, the Sally Fairfax letters surfaced at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. "I profess myself a Votary to Love," Washington wrote Sally, confessing his love for her shortly before he was to marry Martha. The letters hit like a bombshell. A new narrative was born for the turbulent times, one of Washington marrying tired old Martha for convenience while pining for Sally. The defining books of the time took pains to portray Martha as a dull homebody and the second choice of history.

"Martha Washington was neither beautiful nor brilliant. She lacked artistic skill, except perhaps in fine needlework. The letters she wrote were an incoherent jumble of affection and gossip." That was James Flexner, the preeminent Washington scholar of the 1960s and '70s. He describes Washington's marriage to Martha as an "escape" from the burden of his passions for Sally. The 40-year union, he wrote, "began badly." Martha, he wrote disdainfully, was "diminutive and plump."

That sets off revisionist historians such as Brady. Although it is true that Martha had borne four children by the time she met Washington, only two of whom survived, she hadn't packed on the pounds yet.

Brady examined purchase orders and clothes inventories of the time. "Martha was very short. [About 5 feet.] But she was not dumpy. We know that because of the account books that she and her first husband kept. Everything they ordered from England refers to her tiny hands, her tiny feet, her small waist, her slim arms," Brady said. "When you were buying at a distance like that, you had to be honest. If you said you were slim and they sent you a small dress and you weighed 200 pounds, it would really be a waste of money."

It was Brady who took a miniature watercolor-on-ivory portrait of Martha in middle age, which her grandchildren said was a "striking likeness," to forensic anthropologists at the Louisiana State University Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services, or FACES, Labratory. These are the scientists who do age progressions to determine what kidnapped children might look like as adults. Brady asked whether they could do the same process in reverse: take a middle-aged Martha and, using her bone structure, figure out what she would have looked like as a 25-year-old about to marry the future father of the country.

Mount Vernon bought the portrait, and it hangs in its education center.

"I wanted to rescue her from old-ladyhood," Brady said.

In drawing a new portrait of their relationship, which perhaps might not have started in love, but grew into it, Brady relied heavily on the two letters from George that escaped Martha's fire. Both were written in the early days of the Revolutionary War. He addresses her as "My dearest." They are warm and filled with concern for her.

Lengel recently discovered a rare letter from Martha to George in 1777, where she calls him "My Love."

"There's enough circumstantial evidence really to show that they were very close," he said. "All these years, Martha has been an afterthought. It hasn't been until now that people have taken the time to see who she really was."

And the story that her purple wedding shoes have been trying to tell.

Martha Washington's wedding shoes will be on display at Mount Vernon through Feb. 23.

Ford Sales Drop by Almost Half compared to Last year

DETROIT (AP) -- General Motors' U.S. vehicle sales plunged 49 percent in January while Ford's sales dropped 40 percent, starting 2009 at an abysmal pace for the auto whole industry as lower sales to fleet buyers like rental car companies weighed down the U.S. automakers' results.

Japanese rival Toyota's sales dropped 32 percent for the month, and Honda's sales fell 28 percent. Subaru bucked the trend of declines for a second month in a row, posting an 8 percent sales increase, but the industry overall was on track for its fourth straight month in which U.S. sales plunged 30 percent or more.

Other automakers are set to release their sales figures later Tuesday.

Chrysler sales chief Steven Landry said Tuesday that U.S. industry sales could drop as much as 35 percent in January. After meeting with Chrysler dealers at a suburban Detroit hotel, he said the annualized sales rate for the month could drop below 10 million for the first time in more than 26 years.

According to Ward's AutoInfoBank, the last month in which the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate dropped below 10 million was August 1982, when it hit 9.9 million as the nation was mired in a recession.

Domestic and foreign automakers have been struggling as unemployment rises, consumer confidence weakens and many people have a tougher time getting loans. General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC have received $13.4 billion in low-interest federal loans to stay afloat, and they hope to get more after they submit a viability plan to the government by Feb. 17. Ford Motor Co. has said it does not plan to use government aid.

GM said earlier this month it is planning its turnaround under the assumption the entire industry will sell 10.5 million new vehicles in the U.S. this year. Chrysler has said it's planning on 11.1 million units, and Ford last week reduced its forecast to a range between 11.5 million and 12.5 million. But few people were expecting the automakers to start 2009 at such a pace.

January is typically a slow sales month, and many automakers and analysts are expecting the market to rebound in the second half of the year as the economy and access to credit improves.

The automakers have rolled out hefty incentive offers in recent months in an effort to boost sales. Edmunds.com estimated the average automaker incentive at $2,714 per vehicle sold in January, down 5.2 percent from December but up 12.5 percent from January 2008.

Jesse Toprak, the auto Web site's executive director of industry analysis, attributed the year-over-year increase to a greater number of lingering 2008 model year vehicles. He noted that 27 percent of all new vehicles sold this January were from the 2008 model year, up from 12 percent a year ago.

Analysts had expected high-volume fleet sales to be down sharply in January, as rental car companies hold onto their current cars longer. The companies have taken a big hit as consumers and businesses cut back on travel budget in the economic downturn, with a spokesman for Hertz Global Holdings Inc. saying rental car demand has fallen by double digits.

Compounding that downturn have been the production cuts across the auto industry that have idled many U.S. factories for several weeks. Many fleet customers get their deliveries right after cars roll off the assembly line, so when factories suspend production, those deliveries come to a halt.

Detroit-based GM sold 128,198 light vehicles in January, while Ford's sales totaled 93,060. Toyota sold 117,287 cars and trucks.

GM said its fleet sales fell 80 percent to just over 13,000 vehicles in January, marking their lowest sales level since 1975. GM's retail sales fell 38 percent.

Dearborn-based Ford said January's drop in sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles included a 27 percent drop in retail sales and a 65 percent decline in fleet sales.

U.S. sales at Ford's Sweden-based Volvo division fell 64 percent to 2,910 vehicles in January, from 8,036 a year earlier. The company is exploring a possible sale of the unit.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s sales of light trucks fell 35 percent on about equal declines in SUV and pickup truck demand, while its car sales dropped 29 percent. Sales of its Prius hybrid slid 29 percent.

Honda Motor Co.'s car sales fell 27 percent and its truck sales dropped 29 percent, but the Japanese automaker saw a 6 percent increase in sales of its Fit subcompact, and sales of the updated Acura TSX sports sedan rose 16 percent.

Ford shares fell 4 cents, or 2.1 percent, to $1.84 in midday trading. GM shares fell 19 cents, or 6.6 percent, to $2.60, and Toyota's U.S. shares rose 90 cents to $64.78.

The Associated Press reports unadjusted auto sales figures, calculating the percentage change in the total number of vehicles sold in one month compared with the same month a year earlier. Some automakers report percentages adjusted for sales days. There were 26 sales days last month, one more than in January 2008.

10 Confessions Of A Cash4Gold Employee



From the acid-cloud haze of the Cash4Gold processing center steps forth a shadowy figure, fingers stained with orange testing fluid. It's an ex-Cash4Gold employee and in-between tuberculosic wheezes he manages to pass you a yellow legal paid with 10 confessions about how his former employer taught him to rip people off. Then he evaporates leaving behind a pile of gold dust. You dip your finger in it and touch it to your tongue. Just as you thought: fool's gold.

If you decide to investigate the creaky clock tower, turn to page 4.
If you decide to read the confessions, to the post inside.

Spotted on ComplaintsBoard: "I would like an article to be posted pertaining to the refinery Cash 4 Gold, located in Pompano Beach, Fl. I am a former employee, who would like to alert/warn the public on the scamming process involved with this company. There are many of us who would like to vouch on behalf of this fast growing scam. We would like to get the word out to everyone on this step by step scam which involves so many people in this country and their valuables.

Below I have attached the full details on the scam involving this company. We know this first hand, because this is how we were trained. Please take note of this information and do what you can to get the word out there, especially in a time when the economy has truly affected everyone for the worst. Thank you!

I am a former employee of Cash 4 Gold. I did not know much about the company before being hired. On my first day of being hired, I was taught the "Cash 4 Gold Scam" from beginning to end.

1. The "refiner's pack" that is used for you to put your jewelry is "insured for UP TO 100 dollars, " according to how much they determine from a description from you, the worth of your items to be, NOT an actual fully researched appraisal.

2. We receive your "Refiner's Pack" within 3-4 days, BUT we are instructed to tell you that it takes "7-10 business days, for us to receive your pack, ALTHOUGH many times, your package has already arrived.
(All cash4gold customers who have called customer service to track a package can vouch for this)

3. Your jewelry gets appraised by hand, a magnifying glass, a plastic container, a small weight pad, and a bottle of ORANGISH fluid, which your items are then determined a value for. Not million dollar equipment or specially trained jewelry experts. The company was temporarily closed recently due to health and code violations. I have witness testers being transported to Medical Centers, due to the testing department environment. There is literally a cloud of smoke in the air from acid and other testing material. If you were thinking it was some state-of-the-art testing facility, you thought WRONG.

4. Although the payment (check) for your item is dated within 24 hrs of testing your jewelry, we SOMETIMES DO NOT actually send out the check until up to 3-4 days later. (if you are a customer check the date the check was issued against the stamped date on the envelope.)

5. We do offer a 100% Satisfaction Guarantee or your jewelry returned, BUT THE CATCH IS, that the guarantee is to contact us within 10 DAYS from when your check is DATED. (This begins with the time it took for the accounts payables dept. to ISSUE the check and also including the TRANSIT TIME for you to receive your check in the mail. **** NOTATE THE COMMERCIALS THAT INSINUATE THAT YOU GET YOUR CASH IN 24 HRS.*** If you request (sign) for FAST CASH (direct deposit) you automatically WAIVE your rights to have your items returned, EVEN if you are not satisfied with amount of your deposit.

6. You generally receive your check around the "7th-10th" business day, AND majority of the time Customers are outraged when they lay eyes on the amount of their check. Some Customer's even receive a check for 0.01 cents.

7. There have been times when we have received your package and MISPLACED or LOST it at the facility. We CLAIM to not have received the items and even try to convince you that it was lost in the hands of USPS. At which point we begin an insurance claim process on your package. We ask you to send us an itemized list of the content of the package, trying to be as descriptive as you possible can (if you can remember everything in full detail) and a copy of your state issud ID. We then issue an INSURANCE CLAIM for UP TO 100 dollars. GOD FORBID your items are worth more then a 100 dollars. If you call customer service to check on the status of your shipment, and we actually have not received your package, we inform you of the insurance claim process. For those who know that their items are worth more than a hundred dollars, they become very upset and threaten to take action against the company, at that point we inform the customer that if they knew their items were worth more they should have added additional insurance at the Post Office. BUT unless you are paying to ship your items in a completely different package other then the refiner's kit, you are unable to add insurance to the package.

8. For those who do get in touch with us within the allotted time frame, we already know what you are calling about. Customers want their items returned, because there
check amount is so insultingly LOW. The first thing a Rep will
ask you is "HOW MUCH WERE YOU EXPECTING TO GET BACK?" This way we can know how much to "BONUS" you.

*Definition of a BONUS: We issue low checks just to have you call us back if you are smart enough to realize that you just got scammed. For the smart one's we are paid to offer u a bonus up to 3x the original amount of your check and you accept. For ex: Sally Smith receives a check for $27.86 for a Rolex watch(which we don’t issue value for), a class ring, a ring with diamond chips, a pair of earrings with emeralds, as well as a few sterling silver pieces, and maybe a few items that were really of no value. Now Sally Smith calls the cust srvc dept, where she speaks to a rep who seems so concerned and will see if she can do better with the amount by speaking to a "SUPERVISOR". We then place the caller on Mute, and speak to our neighbors or doodle on a sheet, or twiddle with our hair for about 45 seconds, while we are supposedly speaking to our supervisor about Ms. Smith's complaint. We then come back with an offer to "BUMP UP YOUR MELT DATE or any other lies the cust srvc reps can think of, and offer you a total amount of $53.20 which is a little under double the amount of your original check; in which case if you accept, the cust srvc rep makes a 15.00 bonus off of your transaction. If the customer service rep offers you under triple the amount of your orig check, he/she makes 10.oo in bonuses.

9. If you accept the offer, the deal is done, and you are told that the call is recorded (which most of the time, the record button does not work, or the box if full.)It’s just a way to make your feel binded by a verbal contract. IF you do not accept the deal, you have to return your check, and it takes sometimes up to a month to receive your items back after we receive the check.

10. If you only want the items that we do not find of any value back, you have to pay 10.00 shipping and handling fee to have your own items returned, which varies. Although it is listed under the terms and conditions, this charge varies from a 10.00-15.00 charge to NO charge, reason being, UNSURE.

Cash 4 Gold is definitely not a trustworthy or credible company to do business with. You are almost better off taking your items to a local pawn shop or shopping around for other companies. With the economy the way it is, Cash 4 Gold seems to be a way out of financial stress for some, but in actuality becomes a stress of its own. I would advise you to think twice before sending in valuables or items inherited and of sentimental value, its not worth it."

IOC, Phelps' sponsors ensure support



MANCHESTER, England -- The International Olympic Committee and two of Michael Phelps' leading sponsors expressed support for the Olympic great Monday, a day after he apologized for being photographed in a British newspaper inhaling from a marijuana pipe.

The IOC said Monday it was confident Phelps would learn from his "inappropriate behavior" and continue to serve as a role model.

Luxury Swiss watchmaker Omega termed Phelps' actions a private matter and "nonissue." Swim wear manufacturer Speedo called the 23-year-old American a "valued member of the Speedo team."

"Michael Phelps is a great Olympic champion," the IOC said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. "He apologized for his inappropriate behavior. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity and his commitment to continue to act as a role model."

Phelps acknowledged "regrettable" behavior and "bad judgment" after the photo appeared Saturday in the tabloid News of the World.

Speedo gave Phelps a $1 million bonus for his record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. Phelps joined Speedo in 2001, a year after making his Olympic debut in Sydney. He dominated the Beijing Games in the company's high-tech LZR Racer suit.

"In light of Michael Phelps' statement yesterday, Speedo would like to make it clear that it does not condone such behavior and we know that Michael truly regrets his actions," Speedo, which is based in Nottingham, said in a statement to The Associated Press.

"Michael Phelps is a valued member of the Speedo team and a great champion. We will do all that we can to support him and his family."

Omega said it was "strongly committed" to its relationship with Phelps, calling his Beijing accomplishments "among the defining sporting achievements in the history of sport."

"The current story in the press involves Michael Phelps' private life and is, as far as Omega is concerned, a nonissue," the company said.

Sports performance beverage PureSport's maker, which tapped Phelps to be spokesman for its first national advertising campaign, also said Monday that it stands by him but it said it does not condone his behavior.

"We applaud the fact that he has taken full and immediate responsibility for his mistake and apologized to us, his fans and the public and we support him during this difficult time," said Michael Humphrey, chief executive of Human Performance Labs.

Hilton Hotels Corp., whose relationship with Phelps dates to 2007, likewise stuck with him.

"We continue to support Michael Phelps as an athlete whose numerous athletic feats outshine an act of regrettable behavior," the statement said.

But former sponsor Rosetta Stone, the foreign-language tutorial vendor, which had a one-year deal with the athlete that ended Dec. 31, did not like the news.

"We do not condone his activities and are disappointed in his recent judgment," Rosetta Stone said in a statement.

Both AT&T Inc. and PowerBar nutrition bar makers Nestle SA, two other big sponsors, quietly ended their relationships with Phelps at the end of 2008. Neither company would comment on the photo or describe the duration or value of their contracts.

A spokesman at sports marketing agency Octagon, which represents Phelps, said the athlete is taking this seriously.

"He has spoken with his sponsors to personally apologize. We are encouraged by their support," the spokesman said.

The News of the World said the picture was taken during a November house party while Phelps was visiting the University of South Carolina.

Under World Anti-Doping Agency rules, an athlete is subject to sanctions only for a positive test during competition periods.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

'Fanboys' - a love letter to 'Star Wars' fans



If the phrases "scruffy-looking nerf herder," "stay on target" and "I thought they smelled bad on the outside" have special meaning for you, there's a good chance that the film "Fanboys" will, too.

Set in the suburban Midwest of 1998, "Fanboys" follows a group of obsessive "Star Wars" fans who hit the road to the Bay Area with a plot to break into George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch and attempt to steal an unreleased copy of "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace."

"Fanboys" is directed by Kyle Newman and stars Jay Baruchel (the least-narcissistic character from "Tropic Thunder" and the goofy boxer Danger in "Million Dollar Baby"), Sam Huntington (TV's "Cavemen"), Chris Marquette (TV's "Joan of Arcadia"), Dan Fogler ("Balls of Fury") and "Gossip Girl" Kristen Bell (the title character in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"). The film mixes humorous proud-to-be-geeky elements with the serious fate of one of the friends, Linus (Marquette), who has terminal cancer. Cameos from Seth Rogen, William Shatner, Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian in "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back") and original Princess Leia Carrie Fisher add to the self-deprecating fun.

We checked in with Bell, 28, who plays Zoe, the fanboys' only friend who happens to be a girl. By e-mail, she shared some of her thoughts about the new film, as well as the mojo of "Star Wars" character Chewbacca the mighty Wookiee.

Q: At what point did it occur to you that you wanted to act in this film?

A: I first met Kyle, the director, who was, for lack of a better word, "geeked" about the script. After reading it, I thought it was so special and pretty accurately portrayed a group of people who live and breathe for "Star Wars." I thought it would be a cool love letter to "Star Wars" fans.

Q: Which scene was the hardest to complete without laughing?

A: Every scene the boys had me rolling. And my character is so sarcastic and cynical they made it very hard to keep a straight face.

Q: Roughly what percentage of the esoteric "Star Wars" jokes did you understand before getting involved with "Fanboys"?

A: Ha ha ha! Not many. But living alongside only "Star Wars" references for two full months, I can now say I understand about 75 percent of it all.

Q: "Star Wars" fans are a tough breed. What kind of feedback have you received from those who have seen previews? Anything surprising?

A: It's amazing how much heart "Star Wars" fans have. They came out of the woodwork and helped us with costumes and hard-to-find props and were extras in the film. I feel bad they have been waiting so long for it to be released.

Q: Was your preparation for this role any different from what you've done for your other films? Did you watch all of the "Star Wars" movies?

A: I did watch all of the original "Star Wars" movies before starting to film, and it is obvious why they are still so popular.

Q: From what we've heard, there were several alternate endings. Was the final one your favorite, or is there another one you especially like that we can look forward to seeing on the DVD?

A: There are two versions of the film. In the original script, Linus has cancer and that is the catalyst for breaking into Skywalker Ranch: one last road trip. Some people felt that was too heavy, and (the script) was revised and we reshot some scenes so he is not sick but gets a slight concussion from a car accident on the road trip.

Q: Do you have a favorite memory or anecdote from being on the set of "Fanboys"?

A: Well, my least favorite memory would have to be the scene in which Hutch (Fogler) was scraping his toe jam off on the bed and flicking it at me. Because it was not prop toe jam.

Q: Hypothetical scenario: You're a senior in high school. Boba Fett, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian all ask you to be their date to the prom. Whose invitation do you accept?

A: I would accept Chewie's invite. Because he makes me laugh, and he looks like he's a great cuddler.

Fanboys (PG-13) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

To see a trailer for "Fanboys," go to links.sfgate.com/ZFXG.

E-mail Delfin Vigil at dvigil@sf chronicle.com.

Human Clones May Be Genetically Viable

Embryos

For the first time since Hwang Woo-Suk's cloned stem cells were revealed as fakes, human cloning — for medical purposes, or even for reproduction — appears to be a realistic possibility.

"We show for the first time that the same genes turned on in normal human embryos are the same genes turned on in human clones," said Robert Lanza, scientific director of Advanced Cell Technologies and co-author of a study published Monday in Cloning and Stem Cells.

Lanza's team inserted human cell nuclei into hollowed-out egg cells from both humans and animals, then stimulated them into development, a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), or more informally, cloning. When compared to a normal human embryo produced through in vitro fertilization, the animal-human hybrids didn't develop normally, but the human-human cloned embryos displayed many of the genetic characteristics of healthy development.

The research is the first step toward therapeutic cloning — making embryonic stem cells from a patient's own DNA capable of replacing diseased tissue, failing organs and even lost limbs. And, theoretically, the same technique could be used to produce a cloned person.

In 2001, Lanza's team claimed to have made cloned human embryos, stoking public hopes that cloning would soon produce thousands of embryonic stem cell lines — one for every common genetic group, capable of replacing diseased tissue, failing organs and lost limbs. It wasn't clear, however, whether those embryos were actually healthy, and their DNA was never analyzed.

Four years later, researchers led by the now-infamous Woo Suk Hwang claimed to have actually harvested embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos. The findings again raised public hopes, only to be revealed as fraudulent. Hwang now works for a controversial dog cloning company, and embryonic stem cells taken from a human clone remains hypothetical.

However, even if the scientific challenges of so-called therapeutic cloning are overcome, ethical problems remain. Harvesting human eggs requires women to take ovulation-inducing hormones, a process that is arguably dangerous and inarguably arduous. As a result, egg supplies are limited and expensive. Some scientists hoped to solve this by substituting animal eggs for human.

Research on these hybrid embryos — as well as chimeric embryos, formed by mixing actual human and animal DNA — was approved last year in the United Kingdom. But that approval came after bitter public debate in which opponents raised the specter of sentient human-animal hybrids being used as biological parts factories.

The latest findings suggest that hybrids are incapable of growing to a medically useful stage, much less sentience. But both cloning and induced pluripotency — a recently-developed procedure in which adult cells are transformed into an embryo-like state — should work.

"Science has a way to go with both of these, but we will soon have a way to create a bank of stem cells to expand the range of stem cell therapies," said Lanza.

His team compared the gene expression of a human embryo produced through in vitro fertilization with clones that incorporated human, cow, rabbit and mouse eggs. Several thousand genes were active in the fully human clones, but almost completely silent in their counterparts, which stopped developing after several days.

Among these were the genetic targets stimulated during induced pluripotency, in which adult cells are returned to an embryo-like state. Their silence suggests that animal eggs will not be useful in making clones capable of generating embryonic stem cells, much less growing to adulthood.

"You can never say never," said Lanza, "but we've been at this a very long time, and despite literally thousands of these attempts, we've never seen one of these hybrids advance further than what we're reporting here. And though negative results don't often get reported, I know for a fact that other experts have had the same results."

But the fully human cloned embryos could produce stem cells and, if permitted, perhaps grow into a person.

"The DNA resembles the DNA of a normal human embryo, which raises the question of human reproductive cloning," said Lanza.

However, New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman disagreed with Lanza's assessment. Though the paper "shows that interspecies SCNT is a bust," he said, there are still "substantial differences" between fully-human cloned and IVF embryos.

But even if Lanza's embryos cannot develop, other scientists may come up with a more effective process. And though reproductive cloning has not yet been attempted, some experts say it's inevitable.

The procedure is illegal in the United States, but a global ban proposed in the United Nations fell apart after the U.S. insisted that therapeutic cloning be banned as well.

"Virtually every country agreed, but President Bush held it hostage," said Lanza.

President Barack Obama has promised to overturn President Bush's moratorium on federal funding of most embryonic stem cell research. Lanza hopes he will abandon Bush's position at the U.N. as well.

"Reproductive cloning is unsafe and unethical," he said. "This raises the urgency that those laws need to be passed."

Citation: "Reprogramming of Human Somatic Cells Using Human and Animal Oocytes." By Young Chung, Colin E. Bishop, Nathan R. Treff, Stephen J. Walker, Vladislav M. Sandler, Sandy Becker, Irina Klimanskaya, Wan-Song Wun, Randall Dunn, Rebecca M. Hall, Jing Su, Shi-Jiang Lu, Marc Maserati, Young-Ho Choi, Richard Scott, Anthony Atala, Ralph Dittman and Robert Lanza. Cloning and Stem Cells, Vol. 11 No. 2, Feb. 1, 2009.

Image: Cloning and Stem Cells / Each top-and-bottom image is a pair; from left to right, a human-mouse embryo; human-cow; human-rabbit; human; and a human embryo produced through in vitro fertilization.

More Info = Less Knowledge

Is global warming caused by humans? Is Barack Obama a Christian? Is evolution a well-supported theory?

You might think these questions have been incontrovertibly answered in the affirmative, proven by settled facts. But for a lot of Americans, they haven't. Among Republicans, belief in anthropogenic global warming declined from 52 percent to 42 percent between 2003 and 2008. Just days before the election, nearly a quarter of respondents in one Texas poll were convinced that Obama is a Muslim. And the proportion of Americans who believe God did not guide evolution? It's 14 percent today, a two-point decline since the '90s, according to Gallup.

What's going on? Normally, we expect society to progress, amassing deeper scientific understanding and basic facts every year. Knowledge only increases, right?

Robert Proctor doesn't think so. A historian of science at Stanford, Proctor points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is "the study of culturally constructed ignorance."

As Proctor argues, when society doesn't know something, it's often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he's a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

"People always assume that if someone doesn't know something, it's because they haven't paid attention or haven't yet figured it out," Proctor says. "But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what's true and what's not."

After years of celebrating the information revolution, we need to focus on the countervailing force: The disinformation revolution. The ur-example of what Proctor calls an agnotological campaign is the funding of bogus studies by cigarette companies trying to link lung cancer to baldness, viruses—anything but their product.

Think of the world of software today: Tech firms regularly sue geeks who reverse-engineer their code to look for flaws. They want their customers to be ignorant of how their apps work.

Even the financial meltdown was driven by ignorance. Credit-default swaps were designed not merely to dilute risk but to dilute knowledge; after they'd changed hands and been serially securitized, no one knew what they were worth.

Maybe the Internet itself has inherently agnotological side effects. People graze all day on information tailored to their existing worldview. And when bloggers or talking heads actually engage in debate, it often consists of pelting one another with mutually contradictory studies they've Googled: "Greenland's ice shield is melting 10 years ahead of schedule!" vs. "The sun is cooling down and Earth is getting colder!"

As Farhad Manjoo notes in True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, if we argue about what a fact means, we're having a debate. If we argue about what the facts are, it's agnotological Armageddon, where reality dies screaming.

Can we fight off these attempts to foster ignorance? Despite his fears about the Internet's combative culture, Proctor is optimistic. During last year's election, campaign-trail lies were quickly exposed via YouTube and transcripts. The Web makes secrets harder to keep.

We need to fashion information tools that are designed to combat agnotological rot. Like Wikipedia: It encourages users to build real knowledge through consensus, and the result manages to (mostly) satisfy even people who hate each other's guts. Because the most important thing these days might just be knowing what we know.

Email clive@clivethompson.net.

Pull Off or Nod Off- New Benzes Can Tell if You're Getting Sleepy

Redesigned Midsize E-Class: Mercedes-Benz

It’s late and you just want to get those last 100 miles of interstate behind you, drowsiness be damned. Bad idea. Recognizing that too many fatigued road-trippers end up in accidents, Mercedes-Benz developed software, dubbed Attention Assist, that monitors behavior and urges sleepy drivers to get some rest. The system will debut on two of the company’s 2010 luxury sedans, the redesigned midsize E-Class [concept design above] and its flagship S-Class.

Asleep at the Wheel?: One sensor, accurate to 0.1 degree of rotation, measures how people turn the steering wheel. Drowsy drivers often barely touch the wheel for long periods and then abruptly yank it to correct their course. Mercedes-Benz
Sensors measure 70 types of input, including acceleration, steering and the use of turn signals. Software compares the input to data that Mercedes gathered from 550 test drivers who altogether suffered through 500,000 sleep-deprived miles. As a driver shows signs of tiredness, an icon of a coffee cup and a stern entreaty to “Pause!” appear on the speedometer. That doesn’t mean grab a quad-shot of espresso and keep going. It means pull over for a nap.

Samsung to release 12 megapixels of cameraphone foolishness this month?


It's been a few years since Samsung unleashed its 10 megapixel cameraphone onto the world. Now we're hearing that Samsung will push the limits of absurdity to a full 12 megapixels "this month," likely at Mobile World Congress. The phone is expected to hit the production lines in February with a European debut shortly thereafter. No details are provided other than the picture above used (but not attributed) by Unwired View. If this is the unannounced phone then we can obviously expect GPS geotagging, DivX video capture, and WiFi with DLNA support. One thing is clear: Samsung thinks that Europeans are pixel braggarts with little concern for image quality.

Update: Nope, that image is just a Photoshop of an 8 megapixel Innov8 -- still, we wouldn't be surprised to see the same feature set and industrial design in a 12 megapixel handset.

[Thanks, Robin of Loxley]

Does the Space Shuttle Really Run on 1MB of Memory?

Vintage Tech: The shuttle’s pea brain is smart enough to control a launch. Sandra Joseph/Kevin O’Connell/NASA

It’s true: The brain of NASA’s primary vehicle has the computational power of an IBM 5150, that ’80s icon that goes for $20 at yard sales. According to NASA and IBM, the shuttle’s General Purpose Computer (GPC)—which controls, among other things, the entire launch sequence—is an upgrade of the 500-kilobyte computer the shuttle flew with until 1991.

Such an antiquated computer works just fine for NASA. The shuttle doesn’t need to support a powerful graphics engine or create PowerPoint presentations or store MP3s. It focuses entirely on raw functions—thrusters on, thrusters off—which, though mathematically complex, don’t require the juice that a user interface like Windows calls for. The GPC has flown so many missions with hardly a hiccup that there’s no reason to replace it, even if it is just 0.005 percent as powerful as an Xbox 360. Besides, a complete overhaul would be horrendously expensive. The GPC’s software would have to be completely reconfigured for a modern computer and tested until proven flawless.

For proof that you shouldn’t fix a space computer if it ain’t broke, consider Russia’s Soyuz space capsule, which since 1974 has been running Argon-16 flight-computer software with just six kilobytes of RAM. In 2003 the Russians rewrote some of the spacecraft’s software, which experts suspect led to its subsequent crash-landing in a desert in Kazakhstan.

US Airways Flight 1549 Towed Through Jersey Streets

By Ben Wojdyla
After the miraculous crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549, the downed Airbus A320 was pulled from the Hudson River. Saturday it was transported through the streets of New Jersey to a storage warehouse. Awesome.


US Airways Flight 1549 Towed Through New Jersey


Fight 1549 Towed Through New JerseyFight 1549 Towed Through New JerseyFight 1549 Towed Through New Jersey

The plane was transported on a huge flatbed trailer operated by J. Supor & Son Trucking & Rigging Company after the wings and tail section were removed for transport on another trailer. The operation took place on blocked streets from the marina in Jersey City where it was parked to its final destination, Supor Industries in Harrison. It'll stay there for 18 months for the National Transportation Safety Board investigation. A sight like this ranks pretty high on our "stuff you'd don't see every day" meter. [USA Today]

Photo Credit:
Richard J. McCormack / APFor additional images head to Quintano Media

Mat made of moss stays alive with the help of bath water

A new bathmat made of moss is kept alive by the water that drips from your body as you dry.


Mat made of moss stays alive with the help of bath water
Natural bonus: it feels soft underfoot and does not smell when it gets damp Photo: SOLENT

The mat contains a total of 70 pieces of ball, island and forest moss measuring 2.4in (6cm) each in diameter.

It feels soft underfoot and does not smell when it gets damp.

Each piece of moss is cut into a foam frame, which prevents the moss from spreading or growing out of control.

Its designer, Nguyen La Chanh, from Switzerland, says the mat is very relaxing and needs little care.

She said: "The idea was to find a new way of having your plants inside.

"Not only plants in pots quietly standing in the corner of a living room but alive plants, evolving in the house.

"I think this mat would appeal people who miss a corner of nature in their appartment - perhaps if they live in an urban environment, far from parks and nature areas.

"It's relaxing, feels lovely and soft under the feet and doesn't need much care."

Miss Nguyen is looking for financial backing so she can mass produce the mat for less than the £220 it cost her to make

iPhone 4G Concept Is a MacBook In a Phone


Oh. So. Pretty. It needs some small aesthetic fixes here and there, but boy I would like to see something along these lines coming from Apple. And I like the fantasy specs too.

(Click on the image for a 1,600-pixel version)

• Titanium and Glass.
• OLED screen
• 3G
• GPS
• Front camera for iChat
• Removable battery
• 3.2 Megapixel camera
• Video
• 32 GB

Square is the new round. [Thanks Kyle]

Rick Astley writing movie musical

The Rick-rolling legend and Best Act Ever is writing a rags-to-riches musical for the screen – so not autobiographical then

Rick Astley

Rick-rolling Rick Astley ... never giving up. Photograph: Mauro Carraro/Rex Features

Rick Astley's career revival may be based on people being tricked into seeing him, but the 80s pop star is now counting on fans buying actual tickets. Not only is Astley again headlining the Here and Now nostalgia tour, but the man who promised to never give you up, let you down, run around and desert you ... is writing a movie musical.

New York Cowboy will tell the story of a small-town boy who moves to New York City in the 80s. It is not, in other words, an autobiography.

"My wife's now a movie producer so I read a lot of scripts and I'm really passionate about films," Astley said in a recent interview. "One day I thought, 'Well, why don't I write one?' And it turned into a musical – but not for the stage."

Astley "hooked up with a guy in California", he told the Times, and after writing a script the two are now seeking an agent. "I'm not fooling myself – nothing may come of it and I totally understand that, but as a process I have loved it. When you're writing frothy pop songs the lyrics can be a bit 'whatever', they are hooky and you just sing them because they work. But writing these songs ... Do they call that a libretto?"

Astley's appearance on the Here and Now tour is unexpected. Despite headlining the show last year, he hadn't intended to participate in 2009 – until Boy George was sent to jail. "Poor George," Astley said now. "I don't know him but it seems such a waste, somebody as sharp and intelligent as that being sent to prison."

Though Astley's a fitting billing along with Kim Wilde, Howard Jones and Brother Beyond, these days he's most keen on the Luddites – a covers band he plays in with his mates. "I play drums and sing with my two friends Graham and Simon and we play East Molesey Cricket Club every now and again," he said. "We were going to call ourselves Mid-Life Crisis because that's what it is."

Tougher Border Can’t Stop Mexican Marijuana Cartels

United States Customs and Border Protection, left; California Department of Justice

Mexican smugglers have used ramps to cross border fences and planted marijuana in California.


Published: February 1, 2009

TUCSON — Drug smugglers parked a car transport trailer against the Mexican side of the border one day in December, dropped a ramp over the security fence, and drove two pickup trucks filled with marijuana onto Arizona soil.

Multimedia
United States Customs and Border Protection

Drug smugglers from Mexico burned their truck and the marijuana it carried before fleeing from border agents in Arizona.

As Border Patrol agents gave chase, a third truck appeared on the Mexican side and gunmen sprayed machine-gun fire over the fence at the agents. Smugglers in the first vehicles torched one truck and abandoned the other, with $1 million worth of marijuana still in the truck bed. Then they vaulted back over the barrier into Mexico’s Sonora state.

Despite huge enforcement actions on both sides of the Southwest border, the Mexican marijuana trade is more robust — and brazen — than ever, law enforcement officials say. Mexican drug cartels routinely transported industrial-size loads of marijuana in 2008, excavating new tunnels and adopting tactics like ramp-assisted smuggling to get their cargoes across undetected.

But these are not the only new tactics: the cartels are also increasingly planting marijuana crops inside the United States in a major strategy shift to avoid the border altogether, officials said. Last year, drug enforcement authorities confiscated record amounts of high potency plants from Miami to San Diego, and even from vineyards leased by cartels in Washington State. Mexican drug traffickers have also moved into hydroponic marijuana production — cannabis grown indoors without soil and nourished with sunlamps — challenging Asian networks and smaller, individual growers here.

A Justice Department report issued last year concluded that Mexican drug trafficking organizations now operated in 195 cities, up from about 50 cities in 2006.

The four largest cartels with affiliates in United States cities were the Federation, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juarez Cartel and the Gulf Cartel.

“There is evidence that Mexican cartels are also increasing their relationships with prison and street gangs in the United States in order to facilitate drug trafficking,” a Congressional report from February 2008 stated. Intelligence analysts were detecting increased Mexican drug cartel-related activity in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Seattle and Yakima, Wash. — areas that used to be controlled by other ethnic networks.

Smuggling is still most conspicuous in the Southwest, which has been home to Mexican traffickers for more than two decades. From Nogales, Ariz., recently, a reporter watched as smugglers across the border, in hilltop stations, peered through binoculars at the movements of American Border Patrol agents. The agents gunned their trucks along the barrier looking for illegal crossings.

About noon, border agents saw a 60-pound bale of marijuana drop over the fence.

“That kind of thing happens every day here,” said Agent Michael A. Scioli, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.

For the cartels, “marijuana is the king crop,” said Special Agent Rafael Reyes, the chief of the Mexico and Central America Section of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “It consistently sustains its marketability and profitability.”

Marijuana trafficking continues virtually unabated in the United States, even as intelligence reports suggest the declining availability of heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs that require extensive smuggling operations.

By combining smuggling with domestic production, the cartels have sustained the marijuana trade despite the onslaught of enforcement actions on both sides of the border. From 2000 through 2007, Mexican authorities arrested about 90,000 drug traffickers, more than 400 hit men and a dozen cartel leaders, according to a 2008 Congressional report. The United States extradited 95 Mexican nationals last year. Seizures in the first half of 2008 outpaced the average seizure rate from 2002 to 2006.

But the price has been high. Tensions have increased among the cartels, which are warring over lucrative drug routes through Mexican border towns like Juarez, Tijuana and Nogales, Sonora. More than 6,000 people, including hundreds of police officers, were killed by drug-related violence in Mexico in 2008. United States Border Patrol agents are also reporting more violent confrontations with traffickers.

As the Mexican government and American authorities have hardened the border, drug cartels are increasing production just north of it to avoid resorting to smuggling.

Many of the largest marijuana plantations are hidden on federal and state parklands, federal authorities say. Bill Sherman, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent based in San Diego, said the authorities were also finding an increasing number of farms in Imperial and San Diego Counties, an area traffickers traditionally avoided because of the presence of border guards, various police agencies and Camp Pendleton, a Marine base.

“We’re seeing a lot more grows down here now,” Mr. Sherman said. “That is a shift.”

Drug enforcement agents uprooted about 6.6 million cannabis plants grown mostly by cartels in 2007, one-third more than the plants destroyed in 2006. In California, the nation’s largest domestic marijuana producer, the authorities eradicated a record 2.9 million plants by the end of the marijuana harvest in December.

Yet enforcement officials say they see no discernible reduction in the domestic supply. Prices have remained relatively steady even as the potency of marijuana increased to record levels in 2007, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center, a Justice Department analysis agency.

Mr. Reyes also noted that Mexican traffickers in the United States were choosing hydroponic marijuana, which is more potent, profitable and easier to hide because it can be grown year round with sunlamps. (A pound of midgrade marijuana sells for about $750 in Los Angeles, compared with $2,500 to $6,000 for a pound of hydroponic marijuana.) He noted a case last year in Florida in which Cuban growers used several houses in a single Miami tract development to supply hydroponic marijuana to Mexican traffickers.

Kathyrn McCarthy, an assistant United States attorney in Detroit, said Mexican traffickers in Michigan were trading Colombian cocaine for hydroponic marijuana from British Columbia to sell in the United States. In Washington State, now the second biggest domestic producer of marijuana, Mexican cartels are growing improved varieties of outdoor marijuana to compete with BC Bud and other potent indoor plants.

Last year, narcotics officers discovered 200,000 high-quality marijuana plants growing amid leased vineyards in the Yakima Valley. The Northwest has traditionally been the province of Asian hydroponic networks.

Despite increased planting, the cartels still rely on smuggling. Near Nogales, Ariz., Mr. Scioli pointed out several cross-border tunnels, one of which extended from the backyard of a house, under the fence and into Mexico 40 yards away. Another series of cross-border tunnels made use of existing sewer lines or drainage pipes. They were among the nine smuggling tunnels drug enforcement agents have discovered there since 2003.

Despite the fact that the authorities are discovering more marijuana production inside the United States, most of the cartels’ leadership remains in Mexico and, for now, so does most of the violence. Still, recent photographs from Mexico of the decapitated heads of Mexican policemen play in the minds of law enforcement officials on this side of the border, who are vigilant for signs of spillover.

The Mexican police in Sonora “are stuck between two warring cartels,” said Anthony J. Coulson, a federal drug enforcement agent. “The cops are being killed as pawns. They’re being used to show how much power and control the cartels have.”

Mr. Reyes, the special agent, said, “The violence is happening because of the pressure we’ve exacted, but it does not fuel any increase or decrease in marijuana.”

No one sees a quick end of the violence in Nogales, Sonora.

Sheriff Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County said there was so much violence on the other side of the border that many Mexican police officers and politicians had become virtual refugees in Nogales, Ariz.

“The violence has left a large contingent of police on this side of the border,” Sheriff Estrada said. “The killing will stop when somebody dominates. When somebody takes control.”

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