Volkswagen Jetta diesel wins “Green Car of the Year”

A clean-burning diesel sedan, Volkswagen AG’s Jetta TDI, won the “Green Car of the Year” award at the Los Angeles auto show, the first time a diesel-powered car has taken the industry’s top environmental honor.

This signals that clean diesel has arrived,” said Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal, the trade magazine that awards the prize.

Diesel, a conventional combustion approach long favored by Europeans, has been making inroads into the U.S. market as a here-and-now option to make engines run more economically and pollute less…

Diesel engines have also suffered an image problem in the U.S. market due to an association with the underpowered versions sold in the 1970s. The technology has been largely limited to large trucks in the United States, even though it is a perennial top seller among passenger cars in Europe.

Volkswagen’s five-passenger Jetta TDI, which boasts a fuel efficiency of 41 miles per gallon, starts at $21,990, compared with $17,340 for a traditional Jetta.

1. There is NO good reason for diesel fuel being more expensive than gasoline in the United States. Level the federal and state excise taxes – and let her rip.

2. The typical rationales about the American consumer not accepting diesel tech is total crap. A symptom of the conservatism and cowardice of American and European carmakers. Toyota was able to walk into the U.S. with brand-new hybrid tech, spend the money on advertising and build a market based on reality not myth – and now they own the leadership of the economy segment.

Ponzi scheme pastor gets 12 years in the slammer

A California judge ordered a clergyman and a co-defendant to pay back $28 million to victims of an investment scam.

Pastor Robert Jennings, 59, Perris, Calif., was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in the Ponzi scheme in which victims were corralled in conference calls that stressed that proposed deals were “God’s Will.”

Jennings represented himself as the president of a coal company during regular conference calls with his “investors” and led them in group prayers.

They also took money for what they called a secret sale of 20,000 tons of gold between Israel and the United Arab Emirates…There were group prayers and a claim the gold transaction was divinely inspired during the groups’ calls to investors.

All together, now – “There is no patch for stupidity”.

Yugo production slowly rolls to a halt

The last red Yugo – signed by all who worked on it
Daylife/Reuters Pictures

It’s the end of the road for the Yugo. Production of the car has officially ended after almost 30 years.

Apparently Yugos came complete with heated rear windows to keep your hands warm when the car needed a push – just one of many jokes inspired by its questionable quality.

The cars, which were named after Yugoslavia, are put together by hand as the factory couldn’t afford an automated system.

Outside there were once rows and rows of shiny models straight from the factory. Now there are only 150 new Yugos left for sale.

It was the cheapest car in the world until recently, costing around 4,000 euros. In the end the Yugo just couldn’t compete with more modern cars.

The Yugo factory is to be transformed and in future it will be making a brand new model for Fiat, something that has already been nicknamed here as the “anti-credit crisis car”.

Offer it with a diesel engine, I might consider one.

Yes, I know – I say that about almost anything with wheels. I’m just so pissed off that importers and distributors have the example before them of Toyota having to educate a market about something as radically different as a hybrid – and it succeeds – but, teaching people about diesel engines is too bloody difficult?

Woman hands over $400,000 to Internet scams!

An American woman has revealed how she was swindled out of $400,000 by Nigerian internet fraudsters, in what is believed to be one of the biggest cases of its kind ever recorded.

Janella Spears, a registered nurse from Sweet Home, Oregon, said she started sending money to the scammers in 2005 after she received an email promising her several million dollars from a long-lost relative. In what is commonly known as a 419 scam – named after a section of the Nigerian criminal code – the fraudsters randomly contacted Spears over the internet, claiming they would offer her a substantial cut of $20.5m fortune in return for the cash injection which would help move it out of the country.

“I kept thinking it’s only a couple hundred dollars – I can get it back,” she told local news. Over a period of two years, the fraudsters strung her along and encouraged her to send more payments of up to $14,000 at a time. In the end she became obsessed and sent the fraudsters more than $400,000, which she raised by remortgaging her home and spending her husband’s retirement savings.

Despite advice from bank officials, police and even the FBI that the scheme was a ruse, Spears said she continued to send cash in the hope of a large pay-off. Even fake emails claiming to be from the President of Nigeria and US president George Bush could not dissuade her.

My friendly local bank instructs tellers to be on the lookout for cases like this. They have gullible people in the lobby every week prepared to purchase money orders for thousands of dollars to ship off to scumbags who contacted them on the Internet.

There is no patch for stupidity.

How Google’s ear hears you

If you own an iPhone, you can now be part of one of the most ambitious speech-recognition experiments ever launched. Google has added voice search to its iPhone mobile application, allowing people to speak search terms into their phones and view the results on the screen…

Fortunately, Google also has a huge amount of data on how people use search, and it was able to use that to train its algorithms. If the system has trouble interpreting one word in a query, for instance, it can fall back on data about which terms are frequently grouped together…

But the data that Google used to build the system pales in comparison to the data that it now has the chance to collect. “The nice thing about this application is that Google will collect all this speech data,” says Jim Glass, a principal research scientist at MIT. “And by getting all this data, they will improve their recognizer even more.”

Speech-recognition systems, however, remain far from perfect. And people’s frustration skyrockets when they can’t find their way out of a voice-menu maze. But Google’s implementation of speech recognition deftly sidesteps some of the technology’s shortcomings, says Glass.

The beauty of search engines is that they don’t have to be exactly right,” he says. When a user submits a spoken query, he says, Google’s algorithms “just take it and stick it in a search engine, which puts the onus on the user to select the right result or try again.” Because people are already used to refining their queries as they conduct Web searches, Glass says, they’re more tolerant of imperfect results.

The chuckle is that for years, geek like me and pundits like JCD have easiy accepted Microsoft’s dedication to – and leadership in – developing systems for speech recognition. They bought Dragonspeak and, let’s face it, it always was something special that Bill Gates was personally focused on.

Here comes Google from a different direction – and a fraction of time in the game – and they’re suddenly out in front of the pack. Is it because they represent a fresh start or simply weren’t stuck in the ruts of what looked like it was going to work – ten years ago? Or both?

GAO report on Homeland Security incompetence

DHS Oversight Board

The Homeland Security Department has done a poor job overseeing the purchase of billions of dollars of equipment and technology since the agency was created five years ago, according to a federal report scheduled for release today.

Senior department officials have “not provided the oversight needed” to ensure that purchases “with important national security objectives” function properly and stay on budget, according to Congress’ Government Accountability Office (GAO)…

Oversight? From a government run by prayer and pundits?

Although previous audits have documented problems with individual programs, the GAO report is the first to review Homeland Security’s overall system of buying and maintaining $60 billion of new equipment and technology…

The report found that 45 of 48 major acquisitions were not reviewed regularly by a Homeland Security oversight board created to do the reviews. Fourteen of those projects had cost overruns, delays and shortcomings in how they functioned.

The GAO blamed oversight problems on insufficient Homeland Security staff and limited attention paid by senior department officials.

In other words, Homeland Insecurity has been run by incompetents with the attention span of a cricket.

That doesn’t let our elected hacks off the hook. There wasn’t a handful of Congresscritters ready and willing to challenge the absence of oversight. They’re all too busy playing to the most ignorant voters in the world. Perish the thought these weasels should or could provide leadership to a nation foundering in disinformation, fear and foolishness.

eHarmony finally agrees to same-sex dating

Online dating site eHarmony will create a service for same-sex matching in a settlement of a 2005 complaint that the company’s failure to offer such a service was discriminatory. The new same-sex matching service from eHarmony, Compatible Partners, is set to debut by March 31.

“With the launch of the Compatible Partners site, our policy is to welcome all single individuals who are genuinely seeking long-term relationships,” said Antone Johnson, eHarmony vice president of legal affairs.

“Even though we believed that the complaint resulted from an unfair characterization of our business, we ultimately decided it was best to settle this case with the attorney general, since litigation outcomes can be unpredictable,” eHarmony attorney Theodore B. Olson said.

I blogged about this over at the “big” blog when the lawsuit went down.

It’s fascinating how many reactionaries have almost a chemical dependency on bigotry. Maintaining 2nd-class citizenship for a portion of society seems to be a requisite prop for the meanspirited streak that serves as backbone for so many of our species.

The dude owning eHarmony founds his discrimination in religious claptrap. But, still, the number of folks bound and determined to diminish someone else’s lives is about the most offensive characteristic of human beings.

Obama appoints Tech Troika

Barack Obama’s transition team appointed three people to develop technology policy priorities for the Obama administration.

Blair Levin, an analyst at financial services company Stifel Nicolaus focusing on telecom, media and technology regulations, served as chief of staff for Reed Hundt when he was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Sonal Shah runs Google’s philanthropic initiatives. She’s the head of, which aims to use technology to address climate change, poverty and disease. Shah has worked for the Treasury Department and the National Security Council and serves on the Obama-Biden Transition Project Advisory Board, which has been managing the transition.

The third member of the working group is Julius Genachowski, cofounder of Rock Creek Ventures and LaunchBox Digital. Genachowski has worked at IAC and served as chief counsel at the FCC. He, too, is on the Obama-Biden Transition Project Advisory Board.

Obama has laid out a technology plan that includes investing in scientific research, ensuring that the Internet is open and bringing broadband to more people. He has said he plans to be the first president to appoint a chief technology officer who will guide technology priorities.

Cripes. We’re still waiting to see who will be the CTO?

Dutch city turns churches into a luxury experience

It has been a while since I’ve enjoyed going to church so much.

As a lapsed Catholic I tend to keep my church attendances to Christmas and, if I’m feeling quite a lot of guilt, Easter. However, I would happily go to “church” at Maastricht’s Kruisherenhotel on a daily basis.

A former gothic church and monastery dating from the 15th century, the buildings have been beautifully renovated to welcome disciples of a new kind of religion — luxury.

Boasting 60 rooms, dazzling but sympathetic light installations and a mezzanine restaurant and accompanying womb-like wine bar in the church’s nave, it’s easy to be quickly converted.

The food is also pretty good; my fish and scallops starter followed by venison the perfect communion for a late autumn evening…

The religious theme continues on the left bank at Selexyz Dominicanen — yet another church that has been converted, this time into a fabulous English- and Dutch-language book store…

It now features a three-story black steel bookstack in the high nave, together with a noisy cafe in the choir. If it sounds like desecration, you couldn’t be more wrong. It is a book and architecture lover’s heaven on Earth.

As proud locals tell my wife and me, there are plenty of empty churches in the area that could do with a similar makeover.

Given the tendency for interesting, albeit often traditional architecture, it’s nice to see disused churches brought to productivity.

Albino girl killed for superstitious rituals

A six-year-old albino girl in Burundi has been found dead with her head and limbs removed, in the latest killing linked to ritual medicine. Albinos in the region have been targeted because of a belief peddled by witchdoctors that their body parts can be used for magic potions.

The girl…was the sixth person with albinism to be killed in Burundi since September.

There have also been a number of attacks in neighbouring Tanzania.

Last week, police in south-western Tanzania arrested a man who was attempting to sell his albino wife to Congolese traders.

I won’t launch into a long rant about superstition. Let’s just leave it at – the difference between this level of anti-human behavior and lesser superstitions – is just that. A question of degree.

They’re all just as stupid. There is nothing “spiritual” about behaving like you’re still in the Stone Age.