Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Apps to make holiday shopping easier

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Even if you love to shop, it can be a pain this time of year. Stores are crowded, gift options seem endless and it's hard to determine if you're getting the best prices.

If you have a smartphone, though, there's a simple solution: Apps. There are tons of mobile apps to help you save time and cash this holiday season. Most of them are cheap or free.

I tried several apps meant to ease holiday shopping frustrations and found a bunch that make the task easier — and a few that make it more fun.

Price Check by Amazon and RedLaser (free, available for iPhone and Android) — With these two apps on my phone, I felt like a low-price-finding machine. Both let you search for items by typing in the name or by scanning a barcode. With Price Check, you can also search for items with your voice or by taking a photo of things like books and DVDs.

RedLaser, owned by eBay Inc., is great for finding items online and in nearby bricks-and-mortar stores. I found myself checking prices on everything from watches to collapsible water bottles, sometimes just for the heck of it. I used it at a local Sur La Table cookware store to compare prices on a set of water glasses before buying them, and was pleased to see the $19.99 price was lower than at some online retailers and a nearby Bloomingdales department store. Learn More...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Eurozone ministers meet amid fears of euro breakup

BRUSSELS (AP) — Eurozone finance ministers are streaming into Brussels on Tuesday in a desperate bid to save the 17-nation euro currency — and to protect Europe, the United States, Asia and the rest of the global economy from a debt-induced financial tsunami.

Most officials agree that, in the race to save the euro, there is no time to lose, but all of a sudden it seems there are more leaks in the dike than there are fingers.

And it's not just a currency used by 332 million people that is at stake. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others have said, if the euro fails, so too does the 27-nation European Union, a rousing diplomatic success that united a continent ripped apart by two World Wars.

If the Euro fails, bank lending would freeze, stock markets would likely crash, and Europe's economies would crater. Nations in the eurozone could see their economic output fall temporarily by as much as 50 percent, according to UBS forecasters. The financial and economic pain would spread west and east as the U.S. and Asia get ensnared in the credit freeze and their exports to Europe collapse.

In all, it's a scenario far more dire than even the devastating 2008 credit crunch after the U.S. mortgage debacle. Learn More...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Earlier deals, longer hours woo Friday shoppers

NEW YORK (AP)Thousands of shoppers lined up at Macy's, Best Buy and other stores nationwide to buy everything from toys to tablets on Black Friday despite the economic downturn and some planned protests of the shopping holiday.

Some stores had crowds rushing in when they opened their doors at midnight — a few hours earlier than they normally do on the most anticipated shopping day of the year. A few that opened on Thanksgiving Day even were filled with shoppers.

The openings were mostly peaceful, but 10 people at a Walmart store in Los Angeles suffered minor injuries when a shopper used pepper spray during a confrontation shortly after the store opened on Thursday evening. Adding to that, there was a plan by protesters in places like Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Bose, Idaho to get shoppers to reconsider shopping at national chains on Black Friday.

Elsewhere, nearly 2,000 shoppers were in line a Best Buy in St. Petersburg, Fla., when it opened at midnight. And more than 9,000 people were outside Macy's Herald Square store when the doors opened at midnight.

"I came here for the deals," said Sidiki Traore, 59, from Roosevelt Island, N.Y. who bought three shirts for $50 at the Macy's. Earlier in the evening, he was at Toys R Us for the 9 p.m. opening and bought three toys for $106 for his four-year-old son.

A record number of shoppers could head to stores across the country to take advantage of deals of up to 70 percent during the kickoff to the holiday shopping weekend. For three days starting on Black Friday, 152 million people are expected shop, up about 10 percent from 138 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. That's good news to retailers, many of which depend on the busy holiday shopping season for up to 40 percent of their annual revenue.

"It's the literal, physical and emotional start to a very big period for us," said Best Buy President Mike Vitelli. Learn More...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

This holiday season, the tablet goes mainstream

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — 'Tis the season of the tablet. Despite the gloomy economy, shoppers are expected to shell out for tablet computers this December, making them about as popular as candy canes and twinkling lights.

The glossy-screened gadgets are the most-desired electronic devices this holiday season. And, of all the gifts people are craving, tablets are second only to clothing, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The industry group expects U.S. consumers to spend an average of $246 on electronic gifts, including tablets.

With help from his three siblings, Bob Cardina, 26, plans to purchase an iPad for his parents for Christmas. Cardina and his sister live in Washington. His parents live in Tampa, Florida. So he's excited to be able to video chat with his parents — them on the new iPad, him on his iPhone. He thinks his mother will be especially happy with the gift. One of her friends has an iPad and she's "definitely taken a liking to it," he said.

To be sure, tablets were on some wish lists last year, but they were mostly prized by gadget geeks. In the past year, they have become more mainstream. Consumers have become comfortable using touch screens, especially as smartphones continue to proliferate. Tablets are popping up in unexpected places, too. Apple Inc.'s iPad in particular is being used as a learning tool in schools, a digital cash register in shops and a menu at restaurants.

In 2010, people were "trying to figure out what the whole tablet thing was about," says Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi. "Now, people know what to do with a tablet." Learn More...

Apple to offer ‘special one-day’ shopping event

Black Friday 2011: Apple to offer deals.
Many retailers including Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Kmart and Sears got an early start to the Black Friday madness by leaking details of their promotions last week. One popular purveyor of electronics had been missing from the fray though, until today.

Apple has posted a notice on its Web site telling customers it will offer a “special one-day Apple shopping event” on Nov. 25. Learn More...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Cash-and-Carry House

Still, Julie and Randy Olson decided it was worth it. In 2007, they had bought 120 acres of farmland in Brook Park, Minn., only to see the value of their property plummet, along with their hopes of ever getting a construction loan to build a house.

And while the 4,200-square-foot wood-frame house they bought for a buck had been slated for demolition, it was solid, Ms. Olson said, with “tight pine lumber and tongue-and-groove construction.”

Ms. Olson, 45, a game warden for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had heard about the house from a colleague who had listed it for public auction, to make way for a wildlife refuge. And the Olsons, it turned out, were the only bidders.

But they are not the only ones to recognize that what might seem wildly impractical — picking up a house and moving it somewhere else — can, in fact, be the most practical thing to do when money is tight.

In recent years, more cash-strapped Americans have been doing just that: realizing the dream of homeownership on the cheap, by buying land and then hauling in inexpensive (or free) houses that would have otherwise been torn down. Many of these houses come from used-house lots, the domestic equivalent of used-car lots, where one can choose from a surprisingly wide range of styles, whether quaint shingled cottages or multistory houses.

There are no hard figures on how many homes are acquired this way, but while sales of stationary houses have been declining, sales of the peripatetic variety appear to be increasing. Learn More...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stocks plunge as debt talks near collapse

NEW YORK (AP) — The stock market was not exactly surprised that the so-called supercommittee failed to reach a deal to cut the federal deficit. But since summer, investors have bought at the first sign of hope and sold at the first hint of trouble.

So on Monday, they sold big.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down as much as 342 points after the special committee of Congress assigned to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years indicated that there would be no deal.

"They're essentially giving up," said Robert Robis, head of fixed income macro strategies at ING Investment Management.

The supercommittee stalemate is supposed to trigger automatic spending cuts across the government, but there were already hints that Congress would find a way around them. Analysts say that could lead to another downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

In addition, the breakdown raises questions about how Congress will find a way to extend a 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security tax. Congress passed it for one year, and some lawmakers support extending it because economic growth remains weak.

Each of those measures puts cash in the pockets of Americans, who can spend it and help the economy grow.

It also shows lawmakers may not be able to make progress on anything budget-related in the coming months, said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist with Banyan Partners LLC in New York.

"It shows that there's a bigger problem at hand, and if they can't work to resolve these relatively small yet meaningful issues, what's going to happen if we get into a situation like Europe is in?" he said. "And we're kind of headed there."

The result was another day of heavy selling in a market that has grown used to big swings. Just before 3 p.m. EST, the Dow was down 254 points at 11,542, a 2.2 percent decline. Learn More...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Deficit gridlock looms, supercommittee deadlocked

WASHINGTON (AP) — Deadline nearing, the deficit-reduction talks in Congress sank toward gridlock Friday after supercommittee Democrats rejected a late Republican offer that included next-to-nothing in new tax revenue. Each side maneuvered to blame the other for a looming stalemate.

The panel faces a deadline of next Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and lawmakers on both sides stressed they were ready to meet through the weekend in a last-ditch search for compromise.

But there was little indication after a day of closed-door meetings that a breakthrough was likely, both Democrats and Republicans emphasizing long-held political positions.

"Where the divide is right now is over taxes, and whether the wealthiest Americans should share in the sacrifices," said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic co-chair of the panel.

But Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said Republicans had offered "a balanced, bipartisan plan - the fact that it was rejected makes it clear that Washington Democrats won't cut a dime in government spending without job-killing tax hikes."

While prospects for a deal faded, House Democrats checked a Republican attempt to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The vote was 261-165, or 23 shy of the two-thirds majority required. GOP lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor, while Democrats generally opposed it, sealing its doom.

The vote on a noisy House floor contrasted to the secretive proceedings inside the supercommittee, a panel that projected optimism when it began its quest for a deficit deal late last summer but has yet to come to any significant compromise. Learn More...

Asian shares fall on fears over Europe fund

(Reuters) - Asian shares fell for a fourth day in a row Friday as Europe's funding difficulties intensified, with Spanish borrowing costs hitting an unsustainable level and premiums for dollar funds rising further.

In a sign that global funding strains may spread to Asia, benchmark three-month euro/yen interest rates futures fell to an eight-month low Friday on concerns that tightness in dollar money markets may prompt non-Japanese banks to raise yen at a higher rate.

Worries over the European debt crisis prompted investors to shed riskier commodities, extending their slide from Thursday when prices took their steepest tumble since September.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia Pacific shares outside Japan .MIAPJ0000PUS slid 2.2 percent with the materials sector .MIAPJMT00PUS leading the decline, as a slide in commodities prices hit the stock market in resource-dependant Australia.

The index, which fell the past two weeks, was set for its biggest weekly loss in about two months. It was down about 4.3 percent for the week and about 17 percent this year.

Japan's Nikkei stock average .N225 fell 1.2 percent and also headed for a third weekly loss. It is down about 18 percent so far in 2011. .T

"The euro zone debt crisis is turning into a global liquidity crisis, and leading to a vicious cycle of intensifying funding tightness spurring dumping of risk assets," said Kazuto Uchida, an executive officer and general manager of the global markets division at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ.

European shares were likely to fall, with spreadbetters expecting London's FTSE .FTSE, Frankfurt's DAX .GDAXI and Paris' CAC 40 .FCHI to drop 1.2 to 1.3 percent.

New Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti Thursday pledged his country would embark on radical fiscal reforms to pull itself out of the debt crisis. But investor jitters remained firmly in place as euro zone governments struggle to raise funds and banks refrain from lending, seizing up market liquidity.

Euro/dollar three-month cross-currency basis swaps, the cost of swapping euros for dollars, widened to -136 basis points Thursday, the most since the 2008 financial crisis.

"Focus right now is on short-term dollar funding, but longer-term funding from six months out to a year is also getting tighter. Major central banks must take a coordinated action to ensure all these funding needs are met," Uchida said.

(Additional reporting by Mari Saito; Editing by Richard Borsuk and Sugita Katyal)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Google launches music service

(Reuters) - Google Inc has turned on the music at its new online store, aiming to wrest the lead from Apple Inc and Inc in audio entertainment distribution despite the absence of a major record label.

Google Music, with more 13 million songs, will be integrated with Android Market, the company's online store for smartphone apps and videos as it plays catch-up with its rivals. Apple, Amazon and Facebook have to varying degrees integrated music into their core online and mobile products.

Google Music will allow the Web search leader to do the same by letting consumers access music from various Internet-connected devices and easily share tracks with friends.

But analysts said the lack of soundtracks from Warner Music - a major label whose artists include Led Zeppelin and Prince, among others - will limit the appeal of Google Music.

"They've got to get that catalog filled pretty quickly," said Mike McGuire, an analyst at industry research firm Gartner. "It's a launch, but it's kind of like a work-in-progress."

Google Music was unveiled at a splashy event at the Mr. Brainwash Studios in Hollywood, California on Wednesday.

Google has negotiated U.S. deals with three of the four major music companies: Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group; Sony Corp's Sony Music Entertainment; and EMI. It has also signed deals with the increasingly influential independent label group Merlin and London-based Beggar's Banquet label group, home to the year's biggest selling artist, Adele.

Analysts say selling online music is unlikely to provide much of a lift to Google's revenue. But they say Google needs to be in the market to ensure that its Android-based mobile efforts can match offerings from competitors.

Android is the world's No. 1 smartphone operating system, powering about 200 million devices worldwide. But without a music service, Android-based smartphones and tablets may not be as attractive to consumers seeking a product that offers a seamless media experience.

And with music storage increasingly moving to remote Internet servers in "the cloud" rather than on the device itself, companies like Google and Apple have a way to keep users locked in to their respective mobile services, said BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis.

"Everyone is using music and media as a jail. Ultimately, this stuff is going to be stored in the cloud and it becomes harder and harder to switch systems," he said.

To help jump-start the new music store, Google said it will offer one free song for consumers to download every day. Learn More...

Government closes mortgage scams tied to Google

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The federal government has shut down dozens of Internet scam artists who had been paying Google to run ads making bogus promises to help desperate homeowners scrambling to avoid foreclosures.

The crackdown announced Wednesday renews questions about the role that Google's massive advertising network plays in enabling online misconduct. It may also increase the pressure on the company to be more vigilant about screening the marketing pitches that appear alongside its Internet search results and other Web content.

The criminal investigation into alleged mortgage swindlers comes three months after Google agreed to pay $500 million to avoid prosecution in Rhode Island for profiting from online ads from Canadian pharmacies that illegally sold drugs in the U.S.

A spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department division overseeing the probe into online mortgage scams declined to comment on its scope other to say it's still ongoing.

Google Inc. also declined to comment Wednesday.

No company wants to be tainted by a criminal investigation, but the prospect is even more nettlesome for Google because it has embraced "don't be evil" as its corporate motto.

That commitment may make it difficult for Google to fend off a call by Consumer Watchdog to donate the revenue from fraudulent mortgage ads to legitimate organizations that help people ease their credit problems. Consumer Watchdog is an activist group that released a report in February asserting that Google was profiting from ads bought by mortgage swindlers.

"Google should never have published these ads, but its executives turned a blind eye to these fraudsters for far too long because of the substantial revenue such advertising generates," said Consumer Watchdog's John M. Simpson, a frequent critic of the company. Learn More...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stock futures signal weaker Wall St open

(Reuters) - Stock index futures pointed to a weaker open for equities on Wall Street on Tuesday, with futures for the S&P 500, the Dow Jones and the Nasdaq 100 down 0.3 to 0.7 percent.

ICSC/Goldman Sachs release at 1245 GMT chain store sales for the week ended November 12. In the previous week, sales rose 1.0 percent.

The Labor Department releases at 1330 GMT the October Producer Price Index. Economists forecast a fall of 0.1 percent versus a 0.8 percent rise in September. Excluding volatile food and energy items, PPI is expected to rise 0.1 percent versus a 0.2 percent increase in the prior month.

Wall Street expects Wal-Mart's
(WMT.N) quarterly profit to climb to 98 cents per share from 90 cents and is looking for the leading retailer to shed light on consumer spending habits. Other companies announcing results include Dell (DELL.O) and Home Depot (HD.N).

The Commerce Department releases at 1330 GMT October retail sales. Economists expect an increase of 0.3 percent in October versus a 1.1 percent rise in September. Excluding automobiles, sales are expected to increase 0.1 percent versus a 0.6 percent rise in September.

The U.S. Federal Housing Administration's cash reserves have dropped so low that there is a close to a 50 percent chance it could run out of funds and may require a taxpayer bailout next year, the Wall Street Journal said, citing an annual independent audit of the agency's finances.

New York Federal Reserve releases at 1330 GMT its Empire State Manufacturing Survey for November. Economists expect a reading of minus 2.10 compared with minus 8.48 in October.

At 1355 GMT, Redbook releases its Retail Sales Index of department and chain store sales for November versus October. In the prior period, sales rose 1.4 percent. Learn More...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Brady throws 3 TDs as Pats beat Jets 37-16

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — A few classic drives. An impressive rout. Total control of the division.

Struggling no more, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots sent a clear message Sunday night: They're still the team to beat in the AFC East. Not the Buffalo Bills. And certainly not the New York Jets.

Brady threw three touchdown passes, including two to Rob Gronkowski, and the Patriots assumed sole possession of first place in the division with a convincing 37-16 victory over the Jets on Sunday night.

"It's very sweet," Brady said, "getting this win."

Especially after two consecutive losses had some wondering if the Patriots (6-3) were no longer the powerhouse they've been for years. Well, not so fast.

"Losing two straight, you have 14 days of just feeling crappy," Brady said. "Every day of practice is harder. It's hard to build on losses. It feels really good to win this one."

After the Jets got within a score at 23-16 early in the fourth quarter, Brady coolly led the Patriots down the field on an 84-yard drive that was capped by an 8-yard touchdown catch by Deion Branch.

New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich then sealed the victory — which snapped a two-game skid — on the Jets' next possession with a 12-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the final quarter.

"One game won't win you much," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "but it's a good win and we're certainly happy to have it."

The game was a showdown for the top spot in the division, but it was no contest as the Patriots took over sole possession by snapping the Jets' three-game winning streak and sweeping the regular-season series. Read More...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Berlusconi resigns, crowds in Rome celebrate

ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi resigned on Saturday to make way for an emergency government Italians hope will save them from financial ruin as thousands of jeering protesters shouted "clown, clown" and toasted the end of a scandal-plagued era.

Berlusconi, who failed to secure a majority in a crucial vote on Tuesday, stepped down as prime minister after parliament passed a package of measures demanded by European partners to restore market confidence in Italy's strained public finances.

Former European Commissioner Mario Monti is expected to be given the task of trying to form a new administration to face a widening financial crisis which has sent Italy's borrowing costs to unmanageable levels.

More than a thousand demonstrators waving banners mocking Berlusconi flocked to the president's residence at the Quirinale Palace as the motorcade carrying the billionaire media entrepreneur, who has been Italy's longest serving prime minister, entered.

The crowd grew so unruly that Berlusconi was forced to leave secretly via a side entrance and return to his private residence.

Cheers broke out when they heard that Berlusconi had resigned and the square broke out into a party atmosphere. People sang, danced and some broke open bottles of champagne.

An orchestra near the palace played the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah. "We are here to rejoice," one said. Learn More...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Babies on obesity path? New sign may offer answer

CHICAGO (AP) — Researchers say there's a new way to tell if infants are likely to become obese later on: Check to see if they've passed two key milestones on doctors' growth charts by age 2.

Babies who grew that quickly face double the risk of being obese at age 5, compared with peers who grew more slowly, their study found. Rapid growers were also more likely to be obese at age 10, and infants whose chart numbers climbed that much during their first 6 months faced the greatest risks.

That kind of rapid growth should be a red flag to doctors, and a sign to parents that babies might be overfed or spending too much time in strollers and not enough crawling around, said pediatrician Dr. Elsie Taveras, the study's lead author and an obesity researcher at Harvard Medical School.

Contrary to the idea that chubby babies are the picture of health, the study bolsters evidence that "bigger is not better" in infants, she said.

But skeptics say not so fast. Babies often grow in spurts and flagging the speediest growers could lead to putting infants on diets — a bad idea that could backfire in the long run, said Dr. Michelle Lampl, director of Emory University's Center for the Study of Human Health.

"It reads like a very handy rule and sounds like it would be very useful — and that's my concern," Lampl said. The guide would be easy to use to justify feeding infants less and to unfairly label them as fat. It could also prompt feeding patterns that could lead to obesity later, she said.

Lampl noted that many infants studied crossed at least two key points on growth charts; yet only 12 percent were obese at age 5 and slightly more at age 10. Nationally, about 10 percent of preschool-aged children are obese, versus about 19 percent of those aged 6 to 11.

Lampl and Edward Frongillo, an infant growth specialist at the University of South Carolina, voiced concern in an editorial accompanying the study in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, released online Monday. They argue that more research is needed to confirm whether the study's recommendation is really a useful way to flag infants for obesity. Read More...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Protesters circle White House in oil pipeline row

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters opposed to a new oil pipeline from Canada to the United States circled the White House grounds on Sunday to press President Barack Obama to reject the project for environmental reasons.

Opponents to TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude produced from oil sands, have dogged the president for months, arguing that the carbon emissions produced in the process of extracting oil from the sands would exacerbate climate change.

On Sunday thousands of men and women, many of them wearing orange vests with "Stop the pipeline" printed on them, lined up around the White House grounds, which include the presidential mansion, the Treasury department and a sprawling executive office building.

Carrying signs that matched Obama's campaign colors of blue and red, some protesters chanted "Hey Obama, we don't want no climate drama" and "Stop the pipeline, yes we can," copying phrases connected to Obama's successful 2008 election effort.

The pipeline controversy threatens to loom over the 2012 presidential race. Obama faces political pitfalls whether his administration approves or rejects the project.

A decision in favor would support Obama's goal of creating jobs and diversifying energy sources, but it would alienate core Democratic supporters who are already disappointed by his progress in fighting climate change.

"We have to leave the tar sands oil in the ground. That's the only solution if we're going to save the planet," said Martin Springhetti, 63, a Democrat and retired teacher from Pennsylvania, who said his active support for Obama next year would depend on the pipeline decision.

"I certainly won't work for him, but I won't vote for him if he doesn't ... say no to the pipeline," said actress Margot Kidder, 63, who campaigned for Obama in 2008 in Montana and was arrested at a similar pipeline protest earlier this year. Read More...

Quarter-mile-wide asteroid coming close to Earth

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — An asteroid bigger than an aircraft carrier will dart between the Earth and moon on Tuesday — the closest encounter by such a huge rock in 35 years.

But scientists say not to worry. It won't hit.

"We're extremely confident, 100 percent confident, that this is not a threat," said the manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, Don Yeomans. "But it is an opportunity."

The asteroid named 2005 YU55 is being watched by ground antennas as it approaches from the direction of the sun. The last time it came within so-called shouting distance was 200 years ago.

Closest approach will occur at 6:28 p.m. EST Tuesday when the asteroid passes within 202,000 miles of Earth. That's closer than the roughly 240,000 miles between the Earth and the moon.

The moon will be just under 150,000 miles from the asteroid at the time of closest approach.

Both the Earth and moon are safe — "this time," said Jay Melosh, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University.

If 2005 YU55 were to plow into the home planet, it would blast out a crater four miles across and 1,700 feet deep, according to Melosh's calculations. Think a magnitude-7 earthquake and 70-foot-high tsunami waves.

Scientists have been tracking the slowly spinning, spherical, dark-colored object since its discovery in 2005, and are positive it won't do any damage.

"We know the orbit of this object very well," Yeomans said.

The asteroid stretches a quarter-mile across. Smaller objects come close all the time, Yeomans noted, but nothing this big will have ventured so close since 1976. And nothing this large will again until 2028. Read More...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Mars500 Crew 'Lands' After 520-Day Simulated Mission To Mars

After breaking a world record for isolation as part of their simulated "trip" to Mars and back, the Mars500 crew has stepped out of their mock interplanetary spacecraft for the first time in 520 days. The isolation experiment which began on June 3, 2010 and ended November 4, 2011 is a revolutionary step toward a "real" manned missions to Mars.

The Mars500 experiment, conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA) at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, is a psychological and physical study about how long periods of isolation affects humans. Long-term isolation experiments are important because without them we won't know if people will be able to survive longterm space travel...or if they'll go completely insane.

The Mars500 experiment took place for 520 days--the approximate time to include, "a long flight to Mars, insertion into orbit around the planet, landing, surface exploration, return to orbit, a monotonous return flight and arrival at Earth," as the ESA puts it. The crew also performed more than 100 experiments just like what would happen in a real mission to Mars, except these experiments were all related to the "problems of long-duration missions in deep space," according to the ESA.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why NASA's Fire Sale Is Good News for Florida

It's never easy watching an English aristocrat sell off parts of the family estate. First the fields and stables go, then the guest wings. Before you know it, you're confined to a few rooms on an upper floor while tourists tromp through the faded parlors and dining salons.

NASA is learning a thing or two about how old aristocracy feels. With the shuttles mothballed, the U.S.-manned program grounded and once buzzing control centers and launchpads standing empty, the agency announced this week that it will surrender three major buildings on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center to private industry and is perfectly happy to put more of its infrastructure up for grabs as well. To NASA old-timers, it was one more bit of ignominy for a sadly diminished brand. To the aerospace industry and the state of Florida, however, it looks like smart business.

The postshuttle era was never going to be easy, with the loss of 6,000 jobs in Florida and thousands more in Houston and elsewhere. NASA still needs to make the low-earth-orbit milk runs to the International Space Station that were the shuttle's sole job in recent years, but that work is now being handled by Russian Soyuz ships, an arrangement that does nothing for the idled American workforce and costs the U.S. a cool $62 million per seat every time an American astronaut goes aloft. To keep the country in the space game, the Obama Administration decided on a two-pronged approach: NASA would focus its attention on unmanned missions to the planets and deep-space manned missions to be flown in the next decade or two, while private companies would compete for the earth-orbit part of the space portfolio.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Euro zone contemplates future without Greece

European leaders were preparing on Thursday for the possibility of Greece leaving the euro zone to preserve the 12-year-old single currency.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Prime Minister George Papandreou at a torrid meeting in Cannes that Athens would not receive a cent more in aid -- Greece was due an 8 billion euros aid payment this month -- until it votes to meet its commitments to the euro zone.

In Athens, Greece's powerful finance minister broke ranks with his prime minister, rejecting a proposed referendum on staying in the euro, hours after they received an ultimatum from France and Germany to make up their minds.

The growing chaos in Greece and uncertainty over the euro zone sent stocks and commodity prices lower in Asia, and fuelled a rush into safe-haven German bonds.

On his return with Papandreou to Athens from Cannes, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos issued a defiant statement, saying Greece's euro membership was a historic achievement and "cannot depend on a referendum".

A finance ministry source said Venizelos, who was kept in the dark by his Socialist rival about Monday's referendum call, opposed risking a public vote at this crucial moment. Learn More...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Beware red flags with green building contractors

Looking to make a few eco-friendly home improvements? Do your homework before committing your cash. The trend of "greenwashing" - where unscrupulous businesses misrepresent their services or use marketing spin to sell not-so-green products and ideas - is on the rise, says renovation expert Mike Holmes, author of "Make It Right: Expert Advice on Home Renovations" (Time Home Entertainment; 2011) and star of HGTV's "Holmes on Homes." "Greenwashing is a problem because we all are susceptible to marketing and advertising," he says. "If we see a product described as 'green' or 'good for the environment,' we might be tempted to buy it, and if it's not legitimately 'green' - that's a problem, in my opinion."

Holmes recommends taking the following steps to protect yourself:

Ask for credentials: Some contractors stretch the definition of green certification. "It's easy to draw a logo and call yourself legit," Holmes says. True certification comes from an unbiased third party. Stick with companies that employ LEED-certified professionals or those that qualify for Energy Star for New Homes or GreenHouse Certified Construction. And remember, hiring a LEED-certified contractor doesn't always guarantee a LEED-certified project.

Get the details in writing: Ask to see a list of what green building materials, features or processes your renovator is using, along with a detailed summary of their benefits. Example: If your contractor is using FSC-certified wood, you should be able to see the paperwork. "A legitimate contractor will tell you exactly how your project will reach its eco-goals, and what percentage of savings you can get, based on actual third-party research," says Holmes. Read More...

Leaders meeting for crisis talks before G20 summit

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is to hold emergency talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel later, ahead of the G20 summit starting on Thursday.
It comes a day after Mr Papandreou made the surprise announcement that Greece would hold a referendum on the eurozone rescue plan agreed last week.
Markets fall sharply on Tuesday as it raises fears the deal could collapse.
The eurozone crisis is also set to dominate the two-day G20 gathering.
'Important decisions'
Mr Sarkozy said the talks with Mr Papandreou would include discussions on "the conditions under which the engagements undertaken will be kept".
The meeting is taking place in Cannes ahead of the G20 summit in the same French city on Thursday and Friday.

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[The Europeans] need to implement the very important decisions they made last week to provide a conclusive resolution to it.”
Jay CarneyBarack Obama's spokesman
Also due to join the Greek, German and French leaders on Wednesday evening are European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Eurogroup President Jean-Claude Juncker, and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde.
Speaking before he travels to France, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said "much more needs to be done" to restore investor confidence in the eurozone.
He urged fellow G20 leaders to take difficult decisions "swiftly".
That sentiment was echoed by Barack Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney.
He said: "[The Europeans] need to implement the very important decisions they made last week to provide a conclusive resolution to it."
Last week, eurozone leaders agreed a 50% debt write-off for Greece as well as strengthening the eurozone bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, to 1trn euros ($1.4tn; £860bn).
However, the deal is reliant upon Greece continuing to carry out extensive austerity measures.
And most commentators say this will be rejected by the Greek people in any referendum.