The Hub Cool News

Reds vs. Blues

Even Bruce Springsteen, a known Yankees fan, won’t say which team he’s rooting for in the World Series, reports Mel Antonen in USA Today (10/29/09). That’s not so boss, you know? The reason is that Bruce is from, well, New Jersey. Actually he’s from South Jersey, which is Philadelphia Phillies territory. And so his publicist says he’s not saying whether he’s root, root, rooting for the red pinstripes or the blue. John Marchese feels Bruce’s pain. John is from New Egypt, which is right smack in the middle of the state, near the imaginary line that divides Yankees and Phillies fans.

"I root for the Phillies, and hope for the Yankees," he says. "Either way, I’ll cheer for one team and get a beer poured on my head." Then there’s the special case of Sparky Lyle, the former star pitcher for both the Yankees and the Phillies. "As far as the people in the South are concerned, I’m a Phillie," he says. But when Sparky travels to North Jersey, he says all he hears about is his time with the Yanks. For most others, it’s less complicated.

"I hate ‘em all," says Donald Jackson, about each and every New York team. Louisa Guzzo returns the fire: "I just don’t like the Phillies," she says. Some of the Yankee enmity is because they spend so much money, while Yankees fans say Phillies fans are just jealous. Actually, the real rivalry is between the Phillies and the Mets, just not right now. At least the state’s gubernatorial candidates haven’t turned the issue into a, um, political football: Jon Corzine is originally from Chicago and a White Sox fan, while Chris Christie is a Mets fan. That’s okay. Nobody seems to know whom to root for in their rivalry, either.

Blues vs. Reds

"It’s as if Cleveland suddenly became the sports capital of the world," writes Dave Kansas in the Wall Street Journal (10/29/09). Except in this case, "Cleveland" is Manchester, England, which is now home to both the most famous and the richest soccer clubs in the world. The most famous would, of course, be Manchester United — known as the Reds –which has won "18 league titles, including 11 since 1992." Ironically, the Reds are currently $1.8 billion in debt.

The richest is Manchester City — known as the Blues — which was purchased last year by Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. The Sheikh bought the Blues for $328 million and has since "backed a $205 million international spending spree to acquire star players." This is already paying off, as "the City are currently in sixth place in the 20-team English Premier League … only four points behind second-place United." Naturally, this is stoking team rivalry within Manchester, a smallish city of fewer than a half million.

Sometimes it even pits brother against brother, as it does for Kevin and Tony Parker. Tony says that when the teams play against each other, "things can get very fraught between us." It’s not that other cities don’t have multiple teams. It seems it’s just that when you have a storied team like United versus a monied team like City, the town just isn’t big enough for the both of them. "Whenever there’s a match on, everyone’s talking about it," says Reds fan, Matt Carlton. Not much bragging happening this week, though, as both teams lost their respective matches.

Twittovation

There was a time when Twitter’s founders objected to users referring to their posts as "Tweets," reports @claireCM in the New York Times (10/26/09). Those days ended just a few months ago, when Twitter "applied for a trademark on the term." That’s just one of the many ways in which Twitter has followed its followers. "Twitter’s smart enough, or lucky enough, to say, ‘Gee, let’s not try to compete with our users … let’s outsource design to them," says Eric von Hippel, author of Democratizing Innovation.

Twitter ceo Evan Williams agrees: "Most companies or services on the web start with wrong assumptions about what they are and what they’re for," he says. "Twitter struck an interesting balance of flexibility and malleability that allowed users to invent uses for it that weren’t anticipated." Among other things, Twitter users invented the idea of putting the @ symbol before their user names (e.g., @cool_news). They also picked up the idea of using the # symbol to categorize topics — another innovation Twitter initially resisted.

The # idea came from open-source advocate @chrismessina, who says Twitter thought the # concept was too nerdy for mass appeal. Well, now Twitter "hyperlinks the hash tags so readers can click and see all the other posts on a topic." Twitter is now also about to formalize the RT, or "retweet," feature, which users have long used to "send a post by another Twitter user to their own set of followers." Evan Williams says Twitter’s plan is to keep following its followers. "You get a bunch of users interacting and it’s hard to predict what they’re going to do," he says. "We say, ‘Why are people using this and how could we make that better?’"

Auto Apps

"Every car’s dashboard needs to take a cue from the iPhone," writes Michael V. Copeland in Fortune (10/26/09). After acknowledging that cars "are for driving" and that safety must always come first, he allows that cars are "the ultimate mobile device." And he thinks auto companies "need to start acting more like consumer electronics companies if they don’t want to cede one of their last great opportunities to Apple, Research in Motion, or Google."

Michael says he’s thinking in terms of apps "that help you, or your newly licensed children, drive more safely. In the same way you have different permissions on a computer, you might have different permissions in a car that toggle from super-performance mode to granny mode, for example." He also thinks it would be cool if a dashboard app tracked his Google calendar and let his colleagues know his estimated time of arrival.

But most of all Michael thinks automakers should "provide a framework that can bring concepts and people together for product development on a consumer electronics timescale, which means weeks for implementing an idea, not years." He notes that Microsoft is already working with Ford and BMW with Google. But his big idea is that the auto industry should move toward "open systems that software developers could access." And he warns, "If they don’t, maybe Apple will get into the car business itself … and believe me, they don’t want that to happen."

Delete

It’s becoming more expensive for people to forget than to remember, suggests Viktor Mayer-Schonberger in his new book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, as reviewed by Adam Keiper in the Wall Street Journal (10/23/09). This is actually something of a contrarian perspective because some historians are concerned that the digital era is making it harder to keep permanent records: "Archivists and librarians have looked for strategies to preserve digital public records, with mixed success," and some fear a "digital dark age" ahead.

But Viktor is looking at the issue differently. It used to be that "lastingly recording knowledge and experience required the painstaking labor of educated specialists, from ancient scribes to medieval monks … In the digital era, by contrast, the cost of saving information has fallen so far that the state of affairs has flipped." As Viktor observes: "Remembering has become the norm, and forgetting the exception." In fact, he says that "the economics of storage has made forgetting brutally expensive."

He continues: "With the help of digital tools, we — individually and as a society — have begun to unlearn forgetting." His concern is that, because of this, we might become inhibited in a way that imposes on our sense of freedom. He frets, for example, that our children might not speak their minds online for "fear their blunt words might hurt their future careers." He also worries that we might not call out corporations for greed if we think our words might one day be used against us. His solution involves data "expiration dates," on the assumption that "getting people to constrain what they desire to share is difficult."

Insert

It’s becoming more expensive for retailers to forget than remember, suggests Jayne O’Donnell in USA Today (10/26/09). This stands to reason, of course, since remembering one’s customers is pretty important. But it has become even more important with the rise of online retail, which many retailers report is growing faster than the bricks-and-mortar kind. For instance, Aeropostale reports its online sales were up 85 percent last year, while its offline sales were up by less than 15 percent.

Many retailers also report that they tend to do better offline when they do better online — and doing better online means planting cookies. Most shoppers say they don’t care about the privacy invasion because they appreciate getting relevant offers. In fact, one survey found that consumers were far more concerned about the cost of shipping than their privacy. However, another survey found that "almost 70 percent were opposed to online behavior tracking by advertisers, and even more were opposed after they were told how the tracking was done."

Some are less alarmed about tracking done by retailers they frequent than they are about the possibility that those retailers may turn around and sell the information to others. "It’s a double-edged sword," says Joseph Davis, ceo of Coremetrics, , an e-commerce consulting firm. "The more granular data you can get about the person, the more successful you will be, but some don’t want the data to be used." He suggests many retailers would do better if they simply explained what they were doing and why, and clearly offered an opportunity to opt-out. "It’s a very touchy subject," he says.

Analog Forestry

Lanka Organics is taking a step beyond organic farming by combining agriculture with forestry, reports Eric Marx in the Christian Science Monitor (10/19/09). Lanka’s founder, T.P. Letchumana Raj actually has been "a pioneering producer, marketer and exporter of certified organic produce — first tea, then cashews, spices, coconuts, mangoes, papayas, pineapples and tamarind pods" since 1992. "Carefully selecting tree, shrub, and vine plantings, he created complex ecosystems capable of producing crops for people while providing habitat for birds, insects and animals."

The concept, known as analog forestry, dates back to 1982, when it was introduced by Ranil Senanayake, a Sri Lankan ecologist. It was inspired by "Sri Lanka’s long tradition of ‘home gardens,’ where locals grew a wide variety of food on cultivated land interspersed with forest." The idea remedies monoculture — the practice of simply replacing one crop with another — which may reduce the use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals but ultimately degrades ecosystems.

It also has proved an economic boon to Sri Lankan villagers, who export their crops under "Forest Garden Products" certification. Some have tripled "their income while restoring habitats." For example, the "Satere-Mawe tribes in Brazil are successfully selling certified guarana fruit in Europe and Asia." The challenge is raising consumer awareness of the "Forest Garden" certification, as most consumers are "more concerned about fair trade and animal welfare." But others see awareness of analog forestry growing as people become more concerned about climate change.

Fresh Hops

For a short time each autumn, a few brewers make a special kind of beer using fresh hops, reports Lucy Burningham in the New York Times (10/21/09). "Brewers are like normal civilians: we think chickens come from the grocery store and hops come in pellets from Yakima," says Jack Joyce of Rogue Ales. Jack says, "It’s an eye-opening experience" to use fresh hops, which give the beer "a lemony, leafy, earthy scent," and a "bright, herbal quality."

But the brewers need to move quickly, and add freshly harvested hops "to the beer within 24 hours of being picked." The hops also "must be harvested within a few hours’ drive of where they will be used in a brew, as they are delicate and don’t freeze or ship well." Usually this means that hops farmers "call brewers hours before a harvest, when plants … have reached perfect harvest. Brewers will drop everything when they get the call."

They also need to be generous with the hops, using "five to seven times more fresh hops than dried because drying concentrates flavors." After about a month of fermenting, the beer is ready to drink — but only for about three months. John Harris of Full Sail Brewing compares the beer to white wine, "with its light, fruity nose and effervescence." Phil Markowski, of Southampton Publick House, says fresh-hop beers are "brewed for the moment," adding, "It’s like fresh local tomatoes and corn, an old-fashioned way to remember traditional seasons."

Eating the Dinosaur

In his new book, Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman frets over the state of American pop culture as he makes "an eloquent defense of it," writes Michael MacCambridge in the Wall Street Journal (10/23/09). The book consists of a series of essays, covering a spectrum of pop-culture topics, "from the lasting appeal of Abba to the annoying staying power of sit-com laugh tracks; from the nearly forgotten 1980s basketball star Ralph Sampson to Garth Brook’s critically dismissed foray into rock."

He writes a "well-reasoned" essay on "the ethics of time travel," in which he admits that "there’s an inherent goofballedness in debating the ethics of an action that’s impossible." He provides an analysis of the Unabomber’s 35,000-word manifesto, and finds "not the lunatic ravings of a terrorist but something more disturbing: In addition to being an attack on technological civilization, the manifesto was a trenchant media critique that strikes him as more incisive than ever in the age of the internet."

Chuck concludes that Ted Kaczynski "was a bad person, but sometimes he was right." Indeed, the recurring theme throughout the book "is that we are so saturated by media that its sheer omnipresence not only alters our sense of reality but also prevents many of us from comprehending the degree to which that omnipresence exists." Along the way, he raises questions that help re-frame our view of "media, truth and discourse in the modern age," such as whether "Bob Dylan is a good singer or a bad singer … That’s the essential question of all criticism, right?"

Cracker Jack

Invented in 1896 and immortalized by song in 1908, Cracker Jack endures as an icon of the ballpark experience, reports John Branch in the New York Times (10/14/09). "It does still have relevance," says Kevin Haggerty, "who oversees concessions at Fenway Park in Boston, where more than 1,000 bags (no longer boxes) of Cracker Jack are sold in a typical game." The snack’s "popularity seems to shift from park to park," and it is does not sell nearly as well at " football, basketball or other games," but it clearly is holding its own against the onslaught of food options at modern baseball stadiums.

"It’s usually the kids who want it," says Greg Copeland, who hawks Cracker Jack at Fenway. "A lot of people get it and give it to their kids." The snack "is available at all 30 Major League parks" but is particularly popular at Fenway, where "eight of the usual 90 hawkers … carry Cracker Jack." It is far less popular at Coors Field in Denver, which sells "less than a quarter of the average in Boston." The Yankees meanwhile tried to replace Cracker Jack with Crunch ‘n’ Munch in 2004, but that lasted only two months after "fans rebelled."

Frito Lay currently owns Cracker Jack, having purchased it from Borden in 1997, and does not disclose "overall sales figures or indicate what percentage of Cracker Jack is sold in ballparks and stadiums as opposed to retail outlets." But Information Resources puts its retail sales at $17.6 million for the year ending Sept. 6, behind Crunch ‘n’ Munch at $22.8 million. Cracker Jack was invented by Louis and F.W. Rueckheim, and supposedly got its name after a salesman tasted the snack and said, "That’s crackerjack!"

Hooter’s Ed

"After a big victory in a youth football game recently, my parents and I took my 11-year-old son to Hooters for lunch," writes Bob Elston in USA Today (10/21/09). Say what? Well, it seems Bob thought it would be a good idea to demystify what Hooters represents, that it might help his son develop a healthier attitude about such things. He says his father kind of did the same thing for him when he was about the same age by giving him a copy of Hugh Hefner’s magazine. And his mom thought the Hooters trip was a good idea, too. "I don’t want my grandson to come unglued at the sight of a woman’s (Hooters)," she said. Or words to that effect.

The other part of the story is that Bob writes a blog on parenting, and thought the outing would make good material. He was right about that. His blog was inundated with reactions, much of it angry, accusing Bob of "bonehead fathering" and arguing that he was encouraging his son to objectify women. But others took a different view, suggesting that the Hooters excursion was about "parenting and rites of passage," and not a "referendum on morality and Hooters." All told, the post was four times more popular than his next most-popular post.

If nothing else, Bob says he learned something about the "power of the internet to … generate an instant controversy. Simply mention ’11-year-old-boy’ and ‘Hooters’ in the same sentence, the opposing sides will line up and the name-calling will begin," he writes. As for his son, Bob suspects he "would rather have been home playing on the Xbox" than having his picture taken with a Hooters waitress (image). This suspicion was confirmed when his son complained that he had been "razzed all week" about the lunch at football practice. Bob says he hopes that this means that he succeeded in turning the mystery of Hooters into "no big deal."

Hooter's Ed

"After a big victory in a youth football game recently, my parents and I took my 11-year-old son to Hooters for lunch," writes Bob Elston in USA Today (10/21/09). Say what? Well, it seems Bob thought it would be a good idea to demystify what Hooters represents, that it might help his son develop a healthier attitude about such things. He says his father kind of did the same thing for him when he was about the same age by giving him a copy of Hugh Hefner’s magazine. And his mom thought the Hooters trip was a good idea, too. "I don’t want my grandson to come unglued at the sight of a woman’s (Hooters)," she said. Or words to that effect.

The other part of the story is that Bob writes a blog on parenting, and thought the outing would make good material. He was right about that. His blog was inundated with reactions, much of it angry, accusing Bob of "bonehead fathering" and arguing that he was encouraging his son to objectify women. But others took a different view, suggesting that the Hooters excursion was about "parenting and rites of passage," and not a "referendum on morality and Hooters." All told, the post was four times more popular than his next most-popular post.

If nothing else, Bob says he learned something about the "power of the internet to … generate an instant controversy. Simply mention ’11-year-old-boy’ and ‘Hooters’ in the same sentence, the opposing sides will line up and the name-calling will begin," he writes. As for his son, Bob suspects he "would rather have been home playing on the Xbox" than having his picture taken with a Hooters waitress (image). This suspicion was confirmed when his son complained that he had been "razzed all week" about the lunch at football practice. Bob says he hopes that this means that he succeeded in turning the mystery of Hooters into "no big deal."

Husbands & Housework

A study of nearly 7,000 husbands and wives finds that couples who vacuum together spend more time in the bedroom together, reports Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal (10/21/09). The study (link) is actually just the latest of several on the link between scrubbing and shagging, but it’s the first to find that wives really, really dig it when their husbands help mop the floors, take out the garbage, pay the bills, iron laundry or drive the kids around town. No one really understands why this is a turn-on exactly, but theories abound.

"If you’re both around doing housework, that also means you are alone together, and in a place where both are relaxed and comfortable," suggests John Rogitz, who’s been married for 30 years. Another husband says that sharing chores is hot because it conveys a "willingness to hold my wife’s needs and wants on a par with my own." Tracy Evans meanwhile thinks that she and her husband can "definitely relax better if the house is clean." But she also warns that it has its limits, especially if it’s about "this perfectionist thing where you want to get everything done."

The study’s authors suppose that the results may indeed reflect a "work hard, play hard" attitude among some couples, and that "working hard in one domain produces more energy for others." Another survey (link), of about 2,000 adults, "placed ‘sharing household chores’ as the third most important factor in a successful marriage, behind faithfulness" and bed time. Then there was a 2003 study that "linked fathers’ housework to more feelings of warmth and affection in their wives. And a survey of 288 husbands reported in Neil Chethick’s 2006 book, VoiceMale, linked a wife’s satisfaction with the division of household duties with her husband’s satisfaction with their (love) life."

Husbands & Housework

A study of nearly 7,000 husbands and wives finds that couples who vacuum together spend more time in the bedroom together, reports Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal (10/21/09). The study (link) is actually just the latest of several on the link between scrubbing and shagging, but it’s the first to find that wives really, really dig it when their husbands help mop the floors, take out the garbage, pay the bills, iron laundry or drive the kids around town. No one really understands why this is a turn-on exactly, but theories abound.

"If you’re both around doing housework, that also means you are alone together, and in a place where both are relaxed and comfortable," suggests John Rogitz, who’s been married for 30 years. Another husband says that sharing chores is hot because it conveys a "willingness to hold my wife’s needs and wants on a par with my own." Tracy Evans meanwhile thinks that she and her husband can "definitely relax better if the house is clean." But she also warns that it has its limits, especially if it’s about "this perfectionist thing where you want to get everything done."

The study’s authors suppose that the results may indeed reflect a "work hard, play hard" attitude among some couples, and that "working hard in one domain produces more energy for others." Another survey (link), of about 2,000 adults, "placed ‘sharing household chores’ as the third most important factor in a successful marriage, behind faithfulness" and bed time. Then there was a 2003 study that "linked fathers’ housework to more feelings of warmth and affection in their wives. And a survey of 288 husbands reported in Neil Chethick’s 2006 book, VoiceMale, linked a wife’s satisfaction with the division of household duties with her husband’s satisfaction with their (love) life."

Ford Lately

Ford Motor’s marketing chief, Jim Farley, thinks people are no longer brand- loyal to cars because quality has become a commodity, reports Bill Vlasic in the New York Times (10/21/09). "Brand loyalty has shrunk because of widespread improvements in the products," says Jim. "The ‘trust factor’ is more or less the same for most cars." But he also thinks winning us back is more about the future than the past. "I can’t tell you how many car clubs I have been to where they own old Mustangs and vintage T-Birds, but they drive Camrys," he says.

At least for now: "So far this year, only about 20 percent of car shoppers stayed with the same brand when they purchased a new vehicle," according to CNW Marketing Research. That’s quite different from the 1980s, when "nearly four in five Americans were repeat buyers." Chris Allen, who is 24, personifies the trend. He grew up in a family that owned nothing but General Motors cars, but now he drives a Volkswagen. "If G.M. produced a vehicle I wanted, it would have been at the top of my list," he says. "But they don’t."

Some suggest that automakers invested too heavily in advertising that promoted corporate brands rather than individual models (i.e., "Have You Driven a Ford Lately?"). No. But Toyota found, for example, "that the rock-solid quality that made its Camry sedan the top-selling car in America did not lure many buyers to its full-size Tundra pickup." Jeremy Anwyl of Edmunds says the focus these days is on "value," and cites Hyundai as having done a particularly good job with that message. Hyundai and Kia, not coincidentally, have replaced Chrysler and Pontiac in the top ten of the best-selling cars in America.

Hyundai’s Hit

General Motors and Chrysler could use Hyundai‘s success as a road map to recovery, suggests Paul Ingrassia in the Wall Street Journal (9/14/09). "Hyundai’s success stems from a sustained corporate effort at reinvention — the very same word General Motors is using to describe its mission these days," Paul writes. Hyundai’s success is undeniable: "Last year Hyundai’s global sales bucked the industry’s decline and rose five percent to 4.2 million cars and trucks." In the U.S., Hyundai’s sales increased .8 percent over the first eight months of this year, while Ford’s dropped 25 percent and GM’s, 35 percent."

This is especially remarkable considering Hyundai’s early reputation for quality problems when it first entered the U.S. market in 1986. But starting 10 years ago, following its acquisition of Kia, Hyundai addressed those problems "by emulating Toyota’s vaunted manufacturing methods." Just as important, Hyundai "put warranties of 10 years or 100,000 miles on vehicles sold in America."

In 2004, "Hyundai tied Honda for second place in the prestigious J.D. Power & Co. Initial Quality Survey … In 2006, Hyundai topped the J.D. Power initial quality ratings for nonluxury cars, and … in January, its first luxury vehicle, the Genesis, was voted car of the year." This year, Hyundai made a U.S. splash with its "Assurance Program," allowing buyers who lost their jobs to return their cars within a year." So far only 50 cars have been returned but the marketing message was clear. GM does seem to have taken note, having "announced a 60-day money-back guarantee in the U.S. for people who buy its cars but find they don’t like them."

Hyundai's Hit

General Motors and Chrysler could use Hyundai‘s success as a road map to recovery, suggests Paul Ingrassia in the Wall Street Journal (9/14/09). "Hyundai’s success stems from a sustained corporate effort at reinvention — the very same word General Motors is using to describe its mission these days," Paul writes. Hyundai’s success is undeniable: "Last year Hyundai’s global sales bucked the industry’s decline and rose five percent to 4.2 million cars and trucks." In the U.S., Hyundai’s sales increased .8 percent over the first eight months of this year, while Ford’s dropped 25 percent and GM’s, 35 percent."

This is especially remarkable considering Hyundai’s early reputation for quality problems when it first entered the U.S. market in 1986. But starting 10 years ago, following its acquisition of Kia, Hyundai addressed those problems "by emulating Toyota’s vaunted manufacturing methods." Just as important, Hyundai "put warranties of 10 years or 100,000 miles on vehicles sold in America."

In 2004, "Hyundai tied Honda for second place in the prestigious J.D. Power & Co. Initial Quality Survey … In 2006, Hyundai topped the J.D. Power initial quality ratings for nonluxury cars, and … in January, its first luxury vehicle, the Genesis, was voted car of the year." This year, Hyundai made a U.S. splash with its "Assurance Program," allowing buyers who lost their jobs to return their cars within a year." So far only 50 cars have been returned but the marketing message was clear. GM does seem to have taken note, having "announced a 60-day money-back guarantee in the U.S. for people who buy its cars but find they don’t like them."

Baddass Hybrid

"We have the only car of its type in the world … it’s fast, it saves gas and it’s saxsier than hell," says Steve Pruitt in a Wall Street Journal piece by David Biderman (10/8/09). What Steve has is a "680-horsepower racecar … that runs, in part, on electricity." Steve calls his car the GZ09-SH, and it "shares much in common with the hybrid Toyota Prius," except that this car "goes from 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds and generates 525 foot-pounds of torque." In other words, "It is on par with competitors in the Le Mans Prototype 1 class, the fastest and most advanced class in this circuit."

More important, its electrical system gives the GZ09-SH a "small but significant boost in power from the battery," making Steve’s car "a hair quicker, especially coming out of turns." Most important, Steve may also be able to "shave time from pit stops in longer races." He thinks "his car’s improved gas mileage may allow it to skip at least one stop next season and several more after he’s worked out the kinks." He believes he "could save anywhere from 14 seconds to more than a minute per race — a staggering amount in racing," all because his car is "nearly 10 percent more fuel efficient than its competitors."

Of course, Steve is not the first to try something like this — the first hybrid racecar, known as Sparky, was built in 1998 by Panoz Auto Development Company. The problem was that its "battery weighed nearly 400 pounds, taking up about half the cockpit." Others are also now working on hybrid racecars, and Steve says the concept is "still in the ‘putting a monkey in the capsule stage,’" adding, "It’s only going to get better." He says this car cost him about $2 million to build and is funding its development without sponsors (he’s a real estate mogul). "I’m doing this out of the good graces of my wife," he says.

Baddass Gas

A "pair of Alabama gearheads" have converted a Pontiac GTO from "a gas-guzzling, tire-smoking beast" into an icon of environmental responsibility, reports Dave Eyvazzade in Wired.com (10/16/09). Mark McConville got the idea while driving a hybrid down Route 66, on his way back to Alabama from California. "There’s a perfect storm brewing out here in our country with concerns about the environment and dependency on foreign oil," says Mark.

With a ’66 GTO sitting back home, Mark decided that converting it to run on compressed natural gas made just the right statement. So, he called up a friend, Keith Barfield, and with "some help from Dave Leivestad, founder of Carburetion and Turbo Systems," they completed the conversion in about two weeks’ time (video). The whole job cost about $4,000 and the "engine took a 20 percent hit on power." But the guys say the car runs great and "plan to hit the road in June and arrive in Los Angeles on July 4."

Their main challenge is going to be "finding natural gas pumps … The only options they have as far as transportable compressors would require an overnight stay, killing their schedule." But Mark is determined to find a solution. "It’s a perfect time for our country to reevaluate our fuel resources," he says, adding, "The solution is not going to come from above … It’s going to come from the people down below that say, ‘Hey, that makes sense to me. Why aren’t we doing that? Can I do this to my car?’" You can follow their journey online at route66goatgas.com.

Biology of Thought

Neuroscientists at UCLA say that some celebrities are assigned to specific nerve cells in our brains, reports Robert Lee Hotz in the Wall Street Journal (10/9/09). Now, keep in mind that these scientists are from L.A., but they say they found patients with nerve cells dedicated exclusively to Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna and even Homer Simpson: "Testing one patient, the researchers found a neuron that reacted instantly when shown almost any picture of Jennifer Aniston," ignoring other celebrities and even giving "the cold shoulder to pictures of the actress with … Brad Pitt."

This line of study actually dates back to 1997, when UCLA neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried and his colleagues started studying epilepsy patients, who, as part of normal preparation for surgery, have electrodes implanted deep in their brain tissue," giving them "an opportunity to study the biology of perception and memory." They later started using "pictures of famous faces and places" to study how neurons gather information and shape memories. They’d flash the images randomly for a second, shuffle the order and repeat the test six times. "You would present hundreds of stimuli … and the neuron would respond to only one or two," says Dr. Fried.

The researchers believe that the neurons were responding to the concept of these people and places — "to the distillation of an experience" — and not the pictures, per se. "These neurons will fire to the person no matter how you present them," says bioengineer Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, and the phenomenon applies beyond pop culture. "The idea of justice is probably generated by a small set of neurons firing," says Christof Koch, a Caltech biophysicist. "It must be true of all the things that we think about … the number pi … God." And, for one patient, it is true for Halle Berry, whose image triggered a neuron that "jumped no matter how the actress was posed or how she was dressed," but showed no interest in any other people, places or things.