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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Move by central banks exhilarates Wall Street

Move by central banks exhilarates Wall Street

AP Photo
Specialist Gregg Maloney, right, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011. A move by the world’s central banks to lower the cost of borrowing exhilarated investors Wednesday, sending the Dow Jones industrial average soaring 490 points and easing fears of a global credit crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. It was the Dow’s biggest gain since March 2009.

A move by the world's central banks to lower the cost of borrowing exhilarated investors Wednesday, sending the Dow Jones industrial average soaring 490 points and easing fears of a global credit crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers.

It was the Dow's biggest gain since March 2009 and the seventh-largest of all time.

Large U.S. banks were among the top performers, jumping as much as 11 percent. Markets in Europe surged, too, with Germany's DAX index climbing 5 percent.

"The central banks of the world have resolved that there will not be a liquidity shortage," said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors. "And they have learned their lessons from 2008. They don't want to take small steps and do anything incrementally, but make a big bold move that is credible."

Wednesday's action by the banks of Europe, the U.S., Britain, Canada, Japan and Switzerland represented an extraordinary coordinated effort.

But amid the market's excitement, many doubts loomed. Some analysts cautioned that the banks did nothing to provide a permanent fix to the problems facing heavily indebted European nations such as Italy and Greece. It only buys time for political leaders.

"It is a short-term solution," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank. "The bottom line on any central bank action is that it papers over the problems, buys time and in some respects takes pressure from politicians. ... If nothing's done in a week, this market gain will disappear."

Banks stocks soared as fears about an imminent disaster in the European financial system ebbed.

American and European banks are connected by contracts, loans and other financial entanglements, meaning that a European financial crisis would punish U.S. bank stocks. The brighter outlook that emerged Wednesday relieved some investor concerns.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. jumped 8.4 percent, the most of the 30 Dow components. Morgan Stanley rose 11.1 percent and Citigroup Inc. 8.9 percent.

Worries about the financial system - and the reluctance of the European Central Bank to intervene - have caused borrowing rates for European nations to skyrocket. Wednesday's decision reduced the rates banks pay to borrow dollars - a move that aims to make loans cheaper so that banks can continue to operate smoothly.

European banks rely on dollars to cover loans they have promised to consumers and businesses and pay for investments in U.S credit markets. They traditionally have tapped short-term funding from U.S money market mutual funds and other banks. But money market funds have been pulling dollars from Europe in recent months, and lending between banks has dried up.

In response to the new rates, the euro rose sharply, while U.S. Treasury prices fell as demand weakened for ultra-safe assets.

The Dow rose 4.2 percent to close at 12,045. It has more than gained back the 564-point slump it had last week. It is up 813 points, or 7.3 percent, so far this week. The last time the Dow closed up more than 400 points was Aug. 11.

The Standard & Poor's 500 closed up 52, or 4.3 percent, at 1,247. The Nasdaq composite index closed up 105, or 4.2 percent, at 2,620.

Seven stocks rose on the New York Stock Exchange for every one that fell. Volume was heavy at 5.7 billion shares.

Surging commodity prices lifted the stocks of companies that make basic materials such as steel. United States Steel Corp. gained 15.3 percent, the most in the S&P 500. AK Steel Holding Corp. added 13.4 percent. Energy stocks also leaped. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. rose 15.2 percent, Peabody Energy Corp. 14.3 percent.

The act by the central banks took some pressure off the financial system, which has signaled in recent days that many banks were losing faith in their trading partners. And it offered hope that more help was on the way.

"People are taking comfort that it's globally coordinated," said Peter Tchir, who runs the hedge fund TF Market Advisors.

The move would have a limited effect, he said, "but the bulls are anticipating that this is just the beginning of central bank and other actions" to ease market pressures.

Any successful plan would have to reduce borrowing costs for Italy and other indebted nations, Tchir said. Italy's borrowing costs edged lower Wednesday, but the nation was still paying more than 7 percent interest for 10-year borrowing - a dangerously high level.

European finance ministers in Brussels have been meeting since Tuesday but have failed to deliver a clearer sense of how the currency union will proceed. More leaders gather next week on Friday for a summit.

In another attempt to free up cash for lending, China on Wednesday reduced the amount of money its banks are required to hold in reserve. It was the first easing of monetary policy in three years, and analysts are expecting more.

Growth in China, which has the largest economy after the European Union and the U.S., could be crucial to sustaining any recovery after the debt crisis.

A string of positive U.S. economic news also propelled the market higher. An index measuring manufacturing in the Midwest surged to a seven-month high; private company hiring jumped in November to the highest level this year, according to payroll company ADP; and the number of contracts to buy homes jumped in October to the highest level in a year.

GOP: Offsetting cuts must cover payroll tax relief

GOP: Offsetting cuts must cover payroll tax relief

AP Photo
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, flanked by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., left, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011, following a closed-door meeting.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republican congressional leaders stressed a willingness Wednesday to extend a Social Security payroll tax cut due to expire Dec. 31, setting up a year-end clash with Democrats over how to pay for a provision at the heart of President Barack Obama's jobs program.

"We just think we shouldn't be punishing job creators to pay for it," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, scorning a Democratic proposal to raise taxes on million-dollar income earners.

Instead, Senate Republicans called for a gradual reduction in the size of the federal bureaucracy, as well as steps to make sure that million-dollar earners don't benefit from unemployment benefits or food stamps. They also recommended raising Medicare premiums for individuals with incomes over $750,000 a year.

House Speaker John Boehner said flatly that any tax cut extension will be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget to avoid raising federal deficits. Numerous Republican officials noted that Obama had said the same thing was true of the plan he unveiled in a nationally televised speech to Congress in September.

The events in Congress, coupled with Obama's fresh appeal for renewal of the payroll tax cut while speaking Wednesday in Scranton, Pa., indicated that leaders in both parties want to seek a compromise less than a week after Congress' high-profile supercommittee failed to find common ground on a related economic issue, a plan to reduce deficits.

Yet nearly a full year before the 2012 elections, it also appeared that lawmakers in both parties are eager to compete for the political high ground before any compromise can be struck on the payroll tax or an extension of unemployment benefits that Republicans also said they might approve.

In a visit to blue-collar northeastern Pennsylvania, Obama warned of a "massive blow to the economy" if Republicans oppose his call for a renewal of the payroll tax cut approved a year ago as a way to stimulate economic growth.

"Are you going to cut taxes for the middle class and those who are trying to get into the middle class, or are you going to protect massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires?" he said, referring to Republicans.

"Are you going to ask a few hundred thousand people who have done very, very well to do their fair share or are you going to raise taxes for hundreds of millions of people across the country?"

Speaking later in New York City, Obama later sounded more conciliatory toward Republicans such as Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"For the last couple of days Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell have both indicated that it probably does make sense not to have taxes go up for middle class families, particularly since they've all taken an oath not to raise taxes," Obama said. "And so it's possible we'll see some additional progress in the next couple of weeks that can continue to help strengthen the economy."

Senate Democrats have set a vote for later in the week to pay for the tax cut renewal by imposing a permanent 3.25 percent surtax on individuals or couples earning more than $1 million a year, a political maneuver designed to cast Republicans as the protectors of the wealthy at a time when unemployment is at 9 percent nationally.

The proposal has no chance of gaining the 60-vote Senate majority needed for approval.

The Senate Republican alternative, unveiled in late afternoon, envisions extending an existing pay freeze for government workers through 2015 - a provision that would apply to lawmakers. It also proposed gradually cutting the government workforce by 10 percent, or 200,000 positions.

Additionally, Republicans recommended taxing away the value of unemployment benefits and denying food stamps to any household with an income of $1 million or more, as well as raising the Medicare premium paid by individuals who earn more than $750,000 a year.

Republicans said their proposal would raise about $221 billion over a decade, covering the cost of a one-year extension of the existing payroll tax cut and leaving $111.5 billion left over for deficit reduction.

"The Democrats can say they just want some people to pay a little bit more to cover this or that dubious proposal," said McConnell, who also noted that there were misgivings inside his party over Obama's proposed tax cut extension.

"Think about that. The Democrats' response to the jobs crisis we're in right now is to raise taxes on those who create jobs. This isn't just counterproductive. It's absurd."

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said the GOP plan as written won't pass. "Now that Republicans have reversed their position on this middle-class tax cut, we look forward to working with them to negotiate a consensus solution," he added.

The extension of unemployment benefits is also included in the jobs program Obama announced in the fall, at a cost of $48.5 billion over a decade.

The overall cost of Obama's plan was $447 billion over 10 years, and his recommendations concerning the payroll tax account for well half the amount.

Under bipartisan legislation Obama signed late last year, the 6.2 percent payroll tax paid by workers on incomes up to $106,800 was cut to 4.2 percent through the end of 2011. The president has proposed reducing that further, to 3.1 percent, for 2012.

In addition, he is asking lawmakers to grant a similar tax break to businesses by halving the 6.2 percent they pay on workers' wages, up to $5 million in payroll.

Those two changes carry a cost of $247.5 billion, according to the White House.

The millionaires' surtax was a late change in the president's proposal, insisted upon by Senate Democrats who balked at some of Obama's initial proposals.

Initially, Obama proposed higher taxes on family incomes over $250,000 and on the oil and gas industry.

The first request troubled Democratic senators from states like New York, New Jersey and California, where large numbers of families would be hit by the increase. The second drew opposition most prominently from Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose state is home to numerous oil and gas operations.

The president also proposed higher taxes on hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners.

Those increases also disappeared, although supercommittee Republicans said they would be willing to accept the corporate jet increase as part of a deal that made big cuts in federal spending.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

World's Tallest Tower Rises in Tokyo

World's Tallest Tower Rises in Tokyo

The Tokyo Sky Tree tower in Tokyo, Japan.

Guinness World Records certified the Tokyo Sky Tree as the tallest tower in the world this month.

Rising like a space age Eiffel Tower on growth hormones, the newly built Tokyo Sky Tree won't officially open its elevator doors until May 2012.

Yet the 2,080-foot-tall (634-meter-tall) structure has already built a lofty reputation. Under construction since 2008, Japan's latest landmark was this month certified the world's tallest tower by Guinness World Records.

But hold on, what about Dubai's Burj Khalifa? Completed in 2010, the giant skyscraper measures 2,723 feet (830 meters) tall.

Yes, say the records people, but the Burj Khalifa is the world's tallest building.

Tokyo's Sky Tree is a tower, the difference being "that less than 50 percent of the construction is usable floor space," explained Guinness World Records spokesperson Anne-Lise Rouse.

By that definition, the Tokyo Sky Tree topples the record of the 1,969-foot (600-meter) Canton Tower in China's Guangdong Province. And the new record-holder presently has no known challengers, Rouse said.

Towering Tourism Boost for Japan?

Triangular at its base, the world's tallest tower morphs into a tubular design as the latticed-steel structure rises. The Sky Tree's main role is to serve as a television and radio broadcasting mast.

But the Sky Tree is also set to become a major visitor attraction, and a well-timed pick-me-up for Japanese tourism after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the country in March 2011.

(See pictures: Japanese tsunami and before and after satellite images)

There are two observation decks, at 1,148 feet (350 meters) and 1,476 feet (450 meters), with admission tickets set to cost 2,000 yen (U.S. $26) and 3,000 yen ($39) respectively. The upper deck includes a glass-covered "sky walkway," where sightseers can stroll around the tower for a 360-degree view of the world's most populous city.

Given Tokyo's seismically active location, the Sky Tree may raise a few eyebrows. But the towering structure is reportedly built to withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake.

Sky Tree's designers, Nikken Sekkei, highlight antiquake architectural features, including a vibration-control system that employs a central spine of reinforced concrete pillars.

Quake Proof?

Based on traditional antiquake technology found in the construction of Japanese pagodas, the central column counteracts the sway of the tower's outer shell during earth tremors.

Andrew Charleson, an earthquake engineering expert at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, said in an email that such damping devices "will be particularly effective in reducing the vibrations due to wind gusts and could also reduce earthquake movements."

"I would expect the tower to be safe in a large quake," he added. "Because it is so high and slender, it will vibrate very slowly during an earthquake.

"This slow vibration-say six seconds for one cycle-will be at such a different frequency from an earthquake," Charleson said.

In other words, the only real threat to visitors to the Tokyo Sky Tree is probably going to be vertigo.

DNA test shows construction worker was Gacy victim

DNA test shows construction worker was Gacy victim

AP Photo
Laura O'Leary, sister of William Bundy, listens to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speak during a press conference in Chicago, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011. More than 30 years after finding bones beneath John Wayne Gacy's house, authorities have identified William Bundy, a 19-year-old Chicago construction worker who disappeared in 1976 as one of Gacy's eight unnamed victims. The announcement by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Tuesday came nearly seven weeks after the sheriff's office issued a public plea for families of young men who disappeared in the 1970s to submit DNA samples for comparison with the victims' remains.

CHICAGO (AP) -- After her older brother disappeared in 1976, Laura O'Leary suspected that the 19-year-old construction worker had probably died at the hands of John Wayne Gacy. But the family was never able to prove it.

They got little help from authorities. And they couldn't locate any dental records to compare with the skeletal remains found beneath the serial killer's house.

So O'Leary waited, clinging for more than 30 years to a few items that once belonged to William George Bundy - a bracelet she'd given him for his 18th birthday, a high school photo ID and an autographed school book.

O'Leary's worst suspicions were confirmed Tuesday, when authorities announced that Bundy was one of the eight unidentified young men found under Gacy's home.

"Today's terribly sad, but it is also a day that provides closure," O'Leary said. "We have been waiting for a long time for closure."

The identification of Bundy came weeks after the sheriff's office issued a public plea for families of young men who disappeared in the 1970s to submit DNA samples for comparison with the victims' remains.

Investigators exhumed the remains earlier this year, hoping that the passage of time and advancement of technology would work in their favor. They established a hotline and a website for people to file reports.

O'Leary, who was 15 when her brother vanished, said she immediately went to the site after hearing the news. She and her brother, Robert, provided DNA samples. The sheriff's office also received a call from a friend of Bundy's who said he believed his friend may have worked for Gacy.

"For so many years, we've had unanswered questions," O'Leary said. "There were no leads. Time went by."

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said the office received calls from 29 states and developed a total of 125 leads, 80 of which required follow up.

Eleven DNA samples were submitted in connection with some of the seven other victims. Four samples did not match, and investigators are waiting on the others, working with a lab at the University of North Texas.

"People are really desperate to find their missing loved ones, and there are not a lot of outlets," Detective Jason Moran said.

He said investigators were learning more about Gacy, his victims and gaps in police work in the 1970s and 1980s, including missing-persons reports that were never followed up or pursued.

Gacy is remembered as one of history's most bizarre killers, largely because of his work as an amateur clown. He was convicted of murdering 33 young men, sometimes luring them to his Chicago-area home for sex by impersonating a police officer or promising them construction work.

The building contractor stabbed one and strangled the others between 1972 and 1978. Most were buried in a crawl space under his home. Four others were dumped in a river.

Gacy was executed in 1994.

Bundy, who grew up in Chicago, was last seen in October 1976 heading out to a party, authorities said. He had forgotten his wallet at home.

A day after he vanished, his family filed a missing-persons report. But, O'Leary said, "it wasn't pursued aggressively."

Bundy's family contacted authorities again when news of Gacy and his victims became public, but they had no way to identify any remains. Their dentist had retired and destroyed all dental records.

Two years later, Bundy's remains were found under Gacy's house, identified only as "Victim No. 19" because his was the 19th body removed from a crawl space beneath Gacy's home.

Investigators said there is no way to know for sure the circumstances of Bundy's death or how he came into contact with Gacy. But Dart said it appeared the motive was luring Bundy with the promise of construction work.

Bundy's disappearance and the unanswered questions weighed heavily on O'Leary's family. Her parents died years ago.

"My mother, she was never really the same," O'Leary said, declining to discuss matters in detail. She said she and her brother want time to heal.

O'Leary and her brother recalled Bundy as a teenager who had a lot of friends, was an excellent diver and excelled at gymnastics. Many of her girlfriends wanted to date him, she joked.

She said learning the truth about his fate allowed the family to close a door. Bundy's amended death certificate was submitted to the Cook County medical examiner's office.

The family plans to put up a grave marker for Bundy in the spring and have a ceremony at the cemetery where other relatives are buried.

"The sorrow will eventually go away," she said. "And I'll have a place to visit him."

American Airlines files for bankruptcy protection

American Airlines files for bankruptcy protection

AP Photo
American Airlines' planes are parked at a gate at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011. American Airlines and its parent company are filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as they seek to cut costs and unload massive debt built up by years of high jet fuel prices and labor struggles.

DALLAS (AP) -- The parent company of American Airlines filed for bankruptcy protection Tuesday, seeking relief from crushing debt caused by high fuel prices and expensive labor contracts that its competitors shed years ago.

The company also replaced its CEO, and the incoming leader said American would probably cut its flight schedule "modestly" while it reorganizes. He did not give specifics. American said its frequent-flier program would be unaffected.

AMR Corp., which owns American, was one of the last major U.S. airline companies that had avoided bankruptcy. Competitors used bankruptcy to shed costly labor contracts, unburden themselves of debt, and start making money again. Delta was the last major airline to file for bankruptcy protection, in 2005.

American - the nation's third-largest airline and proud of an 80-year history that reaches back to the dawn of passenger travel - was stuck with higher costs and had to match its competitors' lower fares or lose passengers.

Other airlines also grew by pursuing acquisitions and expanding overseas. American was the biggest airline in the world in 2008, but has been surpassed by United, which combined with Continental, and Delta, which bought Northwest.

In announcing the bankruptcy filing, AMR said that Gerard Arpey, a veteran of the company for almost three decades and CEO since 2003, had stepped down and was replaced by Thomas W. Horton, the company president.

Horton said the board of directors unanimously decided to file for bankruptcy after meeting Monday in New York and again by conference call on Monday night.

In a filing with federal bankruptcy court in New York, AMR said it had $29.6 billion in debt and $24.7 billion in assets.

With reductions to the flight schedule, Horton said there would probably be corresponding job cuts. American has about 78,000 employees and serves 240,000 passengers per day.

For travelers, American said it would continue to operate flights, honor tickets and take reservations.

AMR's move could also trigger more consolidation in the airline industry. Some analysts believe American is likely to merge with US Airways, which would leave five large airlines where there were nine in 2008.

The company will delay the spinoff of its regional airline, American Eagle, which was expected early next year.

AMR, however, wants to push ahead with plans to order 460 new jets from Boeing and Airbus, plus more than 50 previous jet orders. New planes would save American money on fuel and maintenance, but the orders will be subject to approval by the bankruptcy court.

Analysts said the chief winners from AMR's bankruptcy are United and Delta, which compete for the same business travelers and have global networks like American's.

All airlines will benefit from crowded planes and higher prices if American reduces flights, said Helane Becker, an analyst with Dahlman Rose & Co.

The losers: AMR stockholders almost certainly will be wiped out. The stock had already lost 79 percent of its value this year on fears of bankruptcy. The stock fell to 31.5 cents Tuesday, down almost $1.32 from the day before. In January 2007, after a 4-year rally, shares were worth more than $40.

AMR has lost more than $12 billion since 2001, and analysts expect it will post more losses through 2012. Speculation about an AMR bankruptcy grew in recent weeks as the company was unable to win union approval for contracts that would reduce labor costs. The company said it was spending $600 million more a year than other airlines because of labor-contract rules - $800 million more including pension obligations.

On Tuesday, Horton said no single factor led to the bankruptcy filing. He said the company needed to cut costs because of the weak global economy, a credit downgrade, and high, volatile fuel prices. The price of jet fuel has risen more than 60 percent in the past five years.

Ray Neidl, an analyst with Maxim Group LLC, an investment banking company, said AMR was wise to file for bankruptcy while it still had about $4 billion in cash. That way, the company will have a cushion to keep operating without worrying immediately about lining up new financing, he said.

Neidl said the company has strong assets but needs to find labor peace and more revenue. He said American might be pushed into a merger with US Airways.

The president of the pilots' union, Dave Bates, said his members were concerned about what the bankruptcy will mean for them. Other airlines used bankruptcy to terminate pension plans.

"While today's news was not entirely unexpected, it is nevertheless disappointing that we find ourselves working for an airline that has lost its way," Bates said in a message to pilots.

Darryl Jenkins, a consultant who has worked for the major airlines, said that AMR will be able to cut costs in bankruptcy, and that employees and stockholders would be the big losers.

"Labor is going to take a major hit," Jenkins said. "Their pensions are in danger."

James C. Little, president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents mechanics, baggage handlers and other ground workers at American, was harsh in his assessment of the impact on labor.

"This (bankruptcy) is likely to be a long and ugly process and our union will fight like hell to make sure that front line workers don't pay an unfair price for management's failings," Little said.

AMR, which has headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, lost $162 million in the third quarter and has posted losses in 14 of the past 16 quarters.

American was founded in 1930 from the combination of more than 80 smaller airlines. Its hubs are New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago and Miami. Its major international partners are British Airways and Japan Airlines.

News of the bankruptcy swept through Fort Worth-based AMR's hometown.

"American Airlines is an institution in Dallas-Fort Worth, and when institutions start to crumble, you look at everything around you," said Elaine Vale, a jewelry store owner who flew back from a Thanksgiving holiday on American. "After American, then who?"

Monday, November 28, 2011

Philadelphia Begins Cleanup, Gingerly, Of ‘Occupied’ City Hall Apron

Philadelphia Begins Cleanup, Gingerly, Of ‘Occupied’ City Hall Apron

(City workers dispose of shipping pallets and other items that had been accumulating at the "Occupy Philadelphia" encampment, on the west side of City Hall.  Credit:  Mike DeNardo)
(City workers dispose of shipping pallets and other items that had been accumulating at the “Occupy Philadelphia” encampment, on the west side of City Hall.

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Despite a 5 p.m. eviction deadline on Sunday, “Occupy Philadelphia” protesters remained on Dilworth Plaza, adjacent to City Hall, on Monday morning.

However, crews from the city’s Department of Streets were beginning to dispose of pallets and trash from the encampment.

Police weren’t moving any of the few dozen remaining “Occupy” people, but it looked like workers were starting to remove some of trash and other objects from around them.

For full story go to: http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/

Pictures: Amazing Transportation Inventions

Pictures: Amazing Transportation Inventions

A jet pack flier hovers over Denver, Colorado

Personal Jet Pack

Few ideas for getting from A to B have gripped popular imaginations in the modern era as strongly as the personal jet pack. The ultimate gravity- and traffic-defying machine has appeared in comic books, science fiction novels, Hollywood films, and circus side shows for decades.

Although people aren't flying around with rocket-propelled backpacks today as Sean Connery's James Bond once did (Thunderball, 1965), inventions of fiction, sketch pad and exhibition have surprising links to real-world transportation systems.

The rotors of Leonardo da Vinci, the lightweight materials of Buckminster Fuller, the robust designs of military strategists: Ideas like these helped to inspire the lineage of today's air, land, and sea vehicles. Even a flight of fancy like Harry Potter's "Knight Bus" has an analogue in the efforts under way to better match mass transit to customer demand. National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge pulled together a look at some amazing inventions that could point the way to a smarter transport future, and some that are just plain fun.

Just over 50 years ago, a pioneering jet pack pilot named Harold "Hal" Graham maneuvered a 140-pound "Rocket Belt" by Bell Aerosystems for 112 feet (34 meters). Graham flew "at an altitude best measured in inches," Bell rocket engineer Robert D. Roach later wrote. But on that chilly April morning at Niagara Falls Airport, Graham completed "man's first controlled, individual free-flight with a rocket-belt."

The dream is alive and well today. This photo shows a flier strapped into a jet pack from Jetpack International over Denver, Colorado. The company makes three jet pack models, each weighing 180 pounds. One model, sold only to specially trained pilots, can fly for an estimated nine minutes or 11 miles (18 kilometers), up to 250 feet (76 meters) in the air.

Two other models, built for demo use only, run on hydrogen peroxide. The mild antiseptic and hair bleach can be used as a rocket propellant in concentrated form. (It doesn't burn but releases a great deal of energy when it decomposes in the presence of a catalyst.) But as an energy alternative, hydrogen peroxide has disadvantages, including the amount of energy required to produce it. And don't expect to go far in one of these demo jet packs; maximum flight time is less than a minute.

UN: Syrian forces killed, tortured 256 children

UN: Syrian forces killed, tortured 256 children

AP Photo
Brazilian Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who is mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council to lead an international investigation of allegations of human rights abuses in Syria, gestures during a press conference at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Monday, Nov 28, 2011. Syrian troops have killed hundreds of children and committed other "crimes against humanity" since the government crackdown began in March, the U.N. probe said Monday.

BEIRUT (AP) -- A U.N. investigation concluded Monday that Syrian forces committed crimes against humanity by killing and torturing hundreds of children, including a 2-year-old girl reportedly shot to death so she wouldn't grow up to be a demonstrator.

The inquiry added to mounting international pressure on President Bashar Assad, a day after the Arab League approved sweeping sanctions to push his embattled regime to end the violence. Syria's foreign minister called the action "a declaration of economic war" and warned Monday of retaliation.

The report by a U.N. Human Rights Council panel found that at least 256 children were killed by government forces between mid-March and early November, some of them tortured to death.

"Torture was applied equally to adults and children," said the assessment, released in Geneva. "Numerous testimonies indicated that boys were subjected to sexual torture in places of detention in front of adult men."

The U.N. defines a child as anyone under the age of 18. The report was compiled by a panel of independent experts who were not allowed into Syria. However, the commission interviewed 223 victims and witnesses, including defectors from Syria's military and security forces.

The panel said government forces were given "shoot to kill" orders to crush demonstrations. Some troops "shot indiscriminately at unarmed protesters," while snipers targeted others in the upper body or head, it said.

It quoted one former soldier who said he decided to defect after witnessing an officer shoot a 2-year-old girl in Latakia, then claim he killed her so she wouldn't grow up to be a demonstrator.

The list of alleged crimes committed by Syrian forces "include murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence," said the panel's chairman, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian professor. "We have a very solid body of evidence."

At least 3,500 people have been killed since March in Syria, according to the U.N. - the bloodiest regime response against the Arab Spring protests sweeping the Middle East. Deaths in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have numbered in the hundreds; while Libya's toll is unknown and likely higher, the conflict there differs from Syria's because it descended into outright civil war between two armed sides.

The U.N. investigation is the latest in a growing wave of international measures pressuring Damascus to end its crackdown, and comes on the heels of sweeping sanctions approved Sunday by the Arab League.

Syrian officials did not comment directly on the U.N. findings. However, the regime reacted sharply to the Arab sanctions, betraying a deep concern over the economic impact and warning that Syria could strike back.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem called the Arab League action "a declaration of economic war" and said Syria had withdrawn 95 percent of its assets in Arab countries.

Economy Minister Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar said "sources of foreign currency would be affected" by the sanctions, reflecting concerns that Arab investment in Syria will fall off and transfers from Syrians living in other Arab countries will drop.

Al-Moallem said Syria had means to retaliate.

"Sanctions are a two-way street," he warned in a televised news conference.

"We don't want to threaten anyone, but we will defend the interests of our people," he added, suggesting Syria might use its position as a geographical keystone in the heart of the Middle East to disrupt trade between Arab countries.

Chaos in Syria could send unsettling ripples across the region.

Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities. As they struggled with ways to respond to Assad's brutal crackdown, world leaders have been all too aware of the country's web of allegiances, which extend to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.

The latest sanctions include cutting off transactions with Syria's central bank, and are expected to squeeze an ailing economy that already is under sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. The net effect of the Arab sanctions could deal a crippling blow to Syria's economy.

"We've always said that global sanctions, without Arab sanctions, will not be as effective," said Said Hirsh, Mideast economist with Capital Economics in London.

Some 60 percent of Syria's exports go to Arab countries, and analysts concede the sanctions' effectiveness will hinge largely on whether Arab countries enforce them.

Iraq and Lebanon, which abstained from the Arab League vote, may continue to be markets for Syrian goods, in defiance of the sanctions. Syria shares long borders with both countries and moving goods in and out would be easy.

Still, there is no question the uprising is eviscerating Syria's economy. Hirsh said forecasts indicate it will contract by 5 percent this year and could shrink by another 10 percent in 2012 if sanctions are enforced and the Assad regime stays in power.

The economic troubles threaten the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges.

The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent, but hugely important, sectors of society. But Assad's opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo - the two economic centers in Syria.

The Arab sanctions, however, could chip away at their resolve.

Since the revolt began, the Assad regime has blamed the bloodshed on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to divide and undermine Syria. Until recently, most deaths appeared to be caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protests. But lately, there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad's forces - a development that some say plays into the regime's hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.

The Assad regime has responded to the street protests by sheer brutal force while at the same time announcing reforms largely dismissed by the opposition as too little too late.

On Monday, a spokesman for a committee tasked with drawing up a new constitution said it would recommend the abolishment of Article 8 which states that the ruling Baath Party is the leader of the state and society.

The article's abolishment was once a key demand of the protest movement. However, such overtures are now unlikely to satisfy opposition leaders who say they will accept nothing more than the downfall of the regime.

Egyptians wait in long lines to elect a parliament

Egyptians wait in long lines to elect a parliament

AP Photo
A veiled Egyptian woman casts her ballot in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Nov. 28, 2011. Voting began on Monday in Egypt's first parliamentary elections since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising nine months ago. The vote is a milestone many Egyptians hope will usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship.

CAIRO (AP) -- They waited in long lines for hours to vote, despite a new wave of unrest, fears about a sharply divided society and uncertainty over the nation's future.

For the millions of Egyptians who cast ballots Monday, the first parliamentary elections since they ousted Hosni Mubarak were a turning point in history - if for no other reason than they were finally getting a chance to be heard after decades of rigged voting.

The outcome will indicate whether one of America's most important Middle East allies will remain secular or move down a more Islamic path, as have other countries swept up in the Arab Spring.

"I have hope this time," said Amal Fathy, a 50-year-old government employee who wears the Islamic veil, as she patiently waited to vote. "I may not live long enough to see change, but my grandchildren will."

Since the uprising that forced out Mubarak nearly 10 months ago, Egyptians had looked forward to this day as a celebration of freedom after years of stifling dictatorship. Instead, there has been deep disappointment with the military rulers who replaced the old regime and a new wave of protests and clashes that began 10 days before the vote.

Adding to the disarray, the multiple stage election process, which will stretch over months, is extremely complicated. Some of the key political players complained they did not have enough time or the right conditions to organize for the vote.

If there was little jubilation, there was hope - and even defiance - with many determined to either push the military from power or vote against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups who are expected to dominate the balloting.

"This was simply overwhelming. My heart was beating so fast," Sanaa el-Hawary, a 38-year-old mother of one said after she cast her vote in Cairo. "This is my life, it's my baby's life. It's my country and this is the only hope we have now."

Female voters appeared to outnumber the men by far, shattering widespread notions in a society whose women are mostly dismissed or taken lightly.

Women waiting for five hours at one polling center chanted: "We will not give up, we will not give up."

In Cairo's crowded Shoubra district, 34-year-old Toka Youssef explained why she was voting for the first time in her life.

"Before, there were no real elections. It was all theater. Now I'm optimistic in the future. These are the first steps toward democracy," she said. "It's a bit confused and chaotic because we've never seen this many people vote. No one cared this much before."

Ever since an 18-day uprising toppled Mubarak's regime and brought the military to power, Egypt has gone through violence, splits in society, a worsening economy and a surge in street crime. Still, people were eager to cast a free vote, even though much is unclear about what will happen next, whatever the outcome.

Many liberals, leftists, Christians and pious Muslims who oppose mixing religion and politics went to the polls to try to reduce the scope of the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral gains.

Also weighing heavily on voters' minds was whether this election will set Egypt on a path of democracy under the rule of the military. Protests this month have demanded that the generals step down immediately because of fears they are trying to cling to power and not bring real reform.

The parliament that emerges may have little relevance because the military is sharply limiting its powers, and it may only serve for several months. However, the vote will give Egyptians and the world an accurate reading of the strength of the political forces at work in the Arab world's most populous nation.

A reliable political map of the nation would also have an impact beyond Egypt's borders, serving as a guide to whether the close U.S. ally will continue to be the main source of moderation in the region and assume the mantle of a key advocate of Middle East peace.

The election is the fruit of the Arab Spring revolts that have swept the region in the past year, toppling several authoritarian regimes. In Tunisia and Morocco, Islamic parties have come out winners in recent balloting, but if the much larger Egypt does the same, it could have an even greater impact.

Some voters brought their children along, saying they wanted them to learn how to exercise their rights in what promises to be the fairest and cleanest election in Egypt in living memory.

The biggest complaint Monday was the long wait, with polling stations opening late or running out of ballots. There also was campaigning outside polling centers in violation of the law.

"If you have waited for 30 years, can't you wait now for another hour?" an army officer yelled at hundreds of restless women at one Cairo polling station.

Supporters of the Freedom and Justice party, the Brotherhood's political arm, were seen with laptop computers helping voters with information on where they should cast their ballots but writing the information on large cards with the party logo on one side and the name and photos of its candidates on the other. Party supporters also appeared to be allowed to maintain security at some places or help the elderly vote.

"I never voted because I was never sure it was for real. This time, I hope it is, but I am not positive," said Shahira Ahmed, 45, waiting with her husband and daughter with about 500 other people.

Even before polls opened at 8 a.m., Cairo voters stood in lines stretching several hundred yards, suggesting a respectable turnout. Under heavy security from police and soldiers, the segregated lines of men and women snaked around blocks and prompted authorities to extend voting by two hours.

For decades, few Egyptians bothered to vote because nearly every election was rigged, whether by bribery, ballot-box stuffing or police intimidation. Turnout was often in the single digits.

"I am voting for freedom. We lived in slavery. Now we want justice in freedom," said 50-year-old Iris Nawar at a polling station in Maadi, a Cairo suburb. "We are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. But we lived for 30 years under Mubarak, we will live with them, too."

In a heavy rain in Alexandria, a line of women displayed Egypt's religious spectrum - Christians, Muslims with heads bared, others in conservative headscarves, still others wearing the black robes that left only the eyes exposed. Nearby, one soldier shouted through a megaphone: "Choose freely. Choose whomever you want to vote for."

In Tahrir Square on Monday, a crowd of about 2,000 kept the round-the-clock protest going. Clashes during the demonstrations left more than 40 dead.

Standing outside the tent where he has camped since Friday, protester Ibrahim Hassan, 22, said it was wrong to have elections before the military gives up power and when members of Mubarak's ruling party can still run.

"So they'll elect a parliament, but they won't give it any power or let it write the constitution," he said. "So what's the point?"

A Facebook page that played a crucial role in mobilizing the anti-Mubarak uprising indicated how the election has thrown Tahrir's die-hard revolutionaries into confusion. It said everyone should vote but must wear black while doing so in mourning for those killed in last week's protests.

"We will go to the elections because it is the first step on the path of taking power back from the military, who we believe should go quickly back to their barracks," according to the page.

The Brotherhood entered the campaign with a powerful network around the country and years of experience in political activism, even though it was banned under Mubarak. Also running are candidates for the even more conservative Salafi movement, which advocates a hard-line Saudi Arabian-style interpretation of Islam.

While the Brotherhood shows a willingness at times to play politics and compromise in its ideology, many Salafis insist that democracy take a back seat to Islamic law.

In contrast, the secular and liberal youth groups who engineered the uprising failed to capitalize on their triumph to contest the election effectively. They largely had to create new parties from scratch, most of which were not widely known and were plagued by divisions.

"The Muslim Brotherhood are the people who have stood by us when times were difficult," said Ragya el-Said, a 47-year-old lawyer in Alexandria, a stronghold for the group. "We have a lot of confidence in them."

But the Brotherhood faces opposition. Even some who favor more religion in public life are suspicious of its motives, and the large Christian minority - about 10 percent of the population of around 85 million - fear rising Islamism.

"I'm a Muslim but won't vote for any Islamist party because their views are too narrow," said Eman el-Khoury, 53, looking disapprovingly at Brotherhood activists handing out campaign leaflets near an Alexandria polling station in violation of the law. "How can we change this country when at an opportunity for change we make the same dirty mistakes?"

For many of those who did not want to vote for the Brotherhood or other Islamists, the alternative was not clear.

"I don't know any of the parties or who I'm voting for," said Teresa Sobhi, a Christian voter in the southern city of Assiut. "I'll vote for the first names I see, I guess."

The election will be held over multiple stages, with different provinces taking turns to vote with each round. Voting for 498-seat People's Assembly, parliament's lower chamber, will last until January, then elections for the 390-member upper house will drag on until March.

Each round lasts two days. Some voters said they feared vote-rigging because the ballot boxes would be left at polling stations overnight. Monday and Tuesday's vote takes place in nine provinces whose residents account for 24 million of Egypt's estimated 85 million people.

The ballots are a confusing mix of party lists that will gain seats according to proportions of votes and individual candidates who will have to enter runoffs after each round if no one gets 50 percent in the first round.

Mixed in are candidates labeled as "farmer" or "worker" who must gain a certain number of seats, a holdover from the Mubarak regime, which manipulated the process to elect his cronies.

A parliament dominated by Islamists but without any significant powers could potentially provide the spark for an open conflict with the generals. On the other hand, a clean and fair vote would give legitimacy to the election and credibility to the military at a time when the Tahrir Square protesters are trying to convince everyone that the generals are not serious about reform.

A high turnout among the estimated 50 million voters could water down the showing of the Brotherhood, since its core of supporters are the most likely to vote, hurting the standing of the Tahrir activists. A low turnout would undermine the credibility of the election and boost some of the prestige the Tahrir activists.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

GOP Latinos face questions over immigrant pasts

GOP Latinos face questions over immigrant pasts

AP Photo
FILE - This Dec. 30, 2010 file photo shows New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez in Las Cruces, N.M. New Mexico's air quality bureau has collected more than $2.8 million in civil penalties so far this year and other bureaus are tallying up the fines they have doled out to other polluters. Environment Department general counsel Ryan Flynn hopes the numbers dispel any notion that Gov. Martinez's administration has no interest in protecting the environment.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is forced to research and clarify her late grandfather's immigration status. Marco Rubio, Florida's GOP Senator, is accused of embellishing his family's immigrant story. A Republican congressional candidate in California puts on his website that he is the great-grandson of an illegal immigrant.

As more Latino Republicans seek and win elected office, their families' backgrounds are becoming subject to increased scrutiny from some Latino activists, a reaction experts say is a result of Latino Republicans' conservative views on immigration. It's a new phenomenon that experts say Latino Democrats rarely faced, and could be a recurring feature in elections as the Republican Party seeks to recruit more Latino candidates.

"It's a trend and we are seeing more of it," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

For years, most Latino elected officials were largely Democrats, except in Florida, where Cuban Americans tended to vote Republican. But recently, a new generation of Latino Republicans has won seats in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California and even Idaho. Those politicians have come under fire from some Latino activists for pushing for laws targeting illegal immigrants and for opposing efforts for comprehensive immigration reform - views that are in line with most Republicans.

And the immigrant advocates are pointing to the GOP Latino elected leaders' own family histories in an effort to paint them as hypocrites. Ignacio Garcia, a history professor at Brigham Young University, said it comes from a long tradition by liberal activists of portraying Latino Republicans as "vendidos," or sellouts, since the majority of Latino voters tend to vote Democratic.

For example, Martinez tried twice in the New Mexico state legislature to overturn a state law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain state drivers' licenses. Then earlier this year, various media outlets reported that a grandfather of Martinez may have been an illegal immigrant. The reports sparked immigrant advocates to protests outside the state Capitol with poster-size photos of Martinez on drivers' licenses.

Martinez, a Republican and the nation's only Latina governor, ordered her political organization to research her family's background and found documents that suggested that her grandfather legally entered the country and had various work permits.

The episode drew criticism, even from those who opposed Martinez' efforts on state driver's licenses. "This has nothing to do with her views and how she governs," said Michael A. Olivas, an immigration law professor at the University of Houston who also is aiding in a lawsuit against a Martinez's administration probe over the license fight. "I don't think it's fair for people to dig around in her family's past."

In Florida, Rubio's official Senate website until recently described his parents as having fled Cuba following Fidel Castro's takeover. But media organizations reported last month that Rubio's parents and his maternal grandfather emigrated for economic reasons more than two years before the Cuban Revolution.

Somos Republicans, a group dedicated to increasing Latino Republican voting numbers, immediately attacked Rubio over the discrepancy and for holding harsh views on immigration. "We believe it is time to find out the complete history of his parents' immigration history," the group said in a statement. "It is also time for Rubio to be a leader and help Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) fix the broken immigration system."

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, an immigrant advocacy group in Somerville, Mass., said voters need to know a politician's family background for clues on how they will respond to people with similar stories. "It's very important to voters," said Montes.

Montes said most Latino and immigrant voters don't simply view Latino Republicans as "vendidos" but rather as politican leaders who don't share their views. "I don't care if someone is Latina or not," said Montes. "I care if they believe in the same things I do, and if their policies will affect the immigrant community."

Garcia said the current tension also is a result of a new breed of Latino Republicans finally winning high profile seats after years of being largely ignored or dismissed. Garcia said there have always been Hispanic Republicans, through their numbers have been typically small and they have often faced heat from the largely Democratic Latino population.

In New Mexico, for example, the colorful lawman and lawyer Elfego Baca helped establish the Republican Party just after New Mexico became a state in 1912 and actively tried recruit the state's mutigenerational Latino population to join the party. Baca won a number of local offices, including district attorney, but lost bids for Congress and various statewide offices.

In Texas, civil rights activist Felix Tijerina, a Mexican-American Houston restaurateur and former national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in the 1950s, remained committed to Republican Party despite a backlash from fellow activists who disagreed with his laissez faire, pro-business views. One Texas civil rights leader, John J. Herrera, called Tijerina "a white man's Mexican" for his support of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower for president over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

"The difference now is that these new Latino Republicans, like Martinez and Rubio, are better prepared and are being groomed as national figures," said Garcia. "Meanwhile, the Democrats are falling behind. They have no equivalent and they aren't giving Latinos the same opportunity."

Garcia said there's also a new factor - the millions of new independent Latino evangelicals who could be potential GOP voters. This population is new and unpredictable, he said.

Still, some Latino Republicans want to use the new attention around them in the party to change what they say is damaging rhetoric around immigration. Tony Carlos, who is seeking the GOP nomination for California's 3rd Congressional District, is running on a platform to push comprehensive immigration reform and believes if other Republicans follow, more Latinos will vote with the GOP.

On his campaign website Carlos says his great-grandfather came to Arizona from Mexico "without papers." Carlos said it's all about showing that his family is part of an ongoing American story and that political leaders need to honestly attack today's problems.

"I'm putting my family history out there. And once Latino voters hear that I support immigration reform, I find that they are open to other issues that appeal to conservatives," said Carlos. "My argument is that they are just as conservative. They are just in the wrong party."

Retailers have a robust start to holiday season

Retailers have a robust start to holiday season

AP Photo
FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 25, 2011 file photo, customers shop at a Best Buy store in Burbank, Calif. The official kickoff to the holiday shopping season underscored a big challenge to retailers: shoppers will only come out when they believe they're getting a big discount. Stores' own version of the Super Bowl got off to a robust start, helped by early store openings and heavy price cutting. But many analysts worry that the heavy marketing hype that pulled in the crowds will steal some thunder from the rest of the season.

More Americans hunted for bargains over the weekend than ever before as retailers lured them online and into stores with big discounts and an earlier-than-usual start to the holiday shopping season.

A record 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites during the four-day holiday weekend starting on Thanksgiving Day, up from 212 million last year, according to early estimates by The National Retail Federation released on Sunday. Americans spent more, too: The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 over the weekend, up from $365.34 a year ago.

Art and Anna Destrada from Port Chester, N. Y., were among the holiday shoppers. They started shopping on Thanksgiving evening at a Walmart store, went to various malls in New Jersey on Friday, and got some deals at Macy's on Saturday. They spent a total of $2,000 on gifts for themselves and others, including a Wii videogame console, clothing and jewelry.

"We've saved for Christmas and put away money all year," says Anna Destrada, 49. "We stayed within our means so we can make a few splurges."

The results for the first holiday shopping weekend show that retailers' efforts to lure shoppers during the weak economy are working. Some like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and J.C. Penney have been making a stronger push online to better compete with the likes of rival Amazon.com. And major chains like Macy's, Target, Best Buy extended the traditional start to the shopping season by opening their doors at midnight on Thanksgiving evening instead of the pre-dawn Friday hours of years past.

But the question remains whether retailers' will be able to hold shoppers' attention throughout the remainder of the season, which can account for 25 to 40 percent of a merchant's annual revenue. After all, Americans are still very driven by deep discounting and they're more conscious of their spending budgets.

Overall, holiday spending is expected to grow by a modest 2.8 percent to about $466 billion, according to the NRF. A fuller picture on spending will come Thursday when major retailers report their November sales figures. But for now, experts agree that retailers will likely have to continue to discount to get shoppers to spend.

"The big question is: How do you close the season?" says Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner at A. T. Kearney's retail practice. "This is a very promotional driven shopper."

Indeed, the earlier hours - which meant earlier door-buster deals - on Black Friday seemed to be what drew many shoppers in over the weekend, particularly the younger crowd.

According to the National Retail Federation, 24 percent of Black Friday shoppers were at stores at midnight. That's up from 9.5 percent the year before when only a few stores were open during that time. Of those shopping at midnight on Black Friday, 37 percent were in the 18-to-34 age group.

"Black Friday has evolved from an early morning shopping activity to a late night entertainment," says Ellen Davis, spokeswoman at The National Retail Federation. "A lot of people stayed up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. to go shopping, and then went to bed."

The remainder of the day went well, too.

Mall of America, the nation's largest mall, broke its Black Friday record with about 210,000 shoppers. And Taubman Centers, which manages or leases 26 shopping centers in 13 states, says sales were up anywhere from mid- to low double digits on Friday, compared with a year ago.

Overall, Black Friday sales were $11.4 billion, up 7 percent, or nearly $1 billion from the same day last year, according to a report by ShopperTrak, which gathers data from 25,000 outlets across the country. It was the largest amount ever spent on that day and the biggest year-over-year increase since 2007. Additionally, customer counts climbed 5.1 percent that day compared with a year ago.

Online shopping on Black Friday was especially strong. Research firm comScore reported on Sunday that online spending jumped 26 percent on Black Friday to $816 million, compared with $648 million on the same day a year ago.

Some experts worry the strong start will cannibalize sales during the remainder of the season. Indeed, many people who headed to the malls after Black Friday weren't spending.

At the Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C., it was busy on Saturday, but many shoppers did not have bags. Likewise, at Pioneer Place mall in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, a number of shoppers were doing more window-shopping for the best deals than actual buying.

David Van Veen, 25, for one, says he was looking for deals on work clothes. But he says he'll likely wait to get gifts and other holiday items - perhaps when the deals are better - later in the season.

"I'll wait until Dec. 23 to start shopping I think," he says.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How much crazier can Black Friday get?

How much crazier can Black Friday get?

AP Photo
In this Friday, Nov. 25, 2011, photo, shoppers stop to look at a display while shopping at Dadeland Mall, in Miami. As reports of shopping-related violence rolled in this week from Los Angeles to New York, experts say a volatile mix of desperate retailers and cutthroat marketing has hyped the traditional post-Thanksgiving holiday sales to increasingly frenzied levels.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Pepper-sprayed customers, smash-and-grab looters and bloody scenes in the shopping aisles. How did Black Friday devolve into this?

As reports of shopping-related violence rolled in this week from Los Angeles to New York, experts say a volatile mix of desperate retailers and cutthroat marketing has hyped the traditional post-Thanksgiving sales to increasingly frenzied levels. With stores opening earlier, bargain-obsessed shoppers often are sleep-deprived and short-tempered. Arriving in darkness, they also find themselves vulnerable to savvy parking-lot muggers.

Add in the online-coupon phenomenon, which feeds the psychological hunger for finding impossible bargains, and you've got a recipe for trouble, said Theresa Williams, a marketing professor at Indiana University.

"These are people who should know better and have enough stuff already," Williams said. "What's going to be next year, everybody getting Tasered?"

Across the country on Thursday and Friday, there were signs that tensions had ratcheted up a notch or two, with violence resulting in several instances.

A woman turned herself in to police after allegedly pepper-spraying 20 other customers at a Los Angeles-area Walmart on Thursday in what investigators said was an attempt to get at a crate of Xbox video game consoles. In Kinston, N.C., a security guard also pepper-sprayed customers seeking electronics before the start of a midnight sale.

In New York, crowds reportedly looted a clothing store in Soho. At a Walmart near Phoenix, a man was bloodied while being subdued by police officer on suspicion of shoplifting a video game. There was a shooting outside a store in San Leandro, Calif., shots fired at a mall in Fayetteville, N.C. and a stabbing outside a store in Sacramento, N.Y.

"The difference this year is that instead of a nice sweater you need a bullet proof vest and goggles," said Betty Thomas, 52, who was shopping Saturday with her sisters and a niece at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C.

The wave of violence revived memories of the 2008 Black Friday stampede that killed an employee and put a pregnant woman in the hospital at a Walmart on New York's Long Island. Walmart spokesman Greg Rossiter said Black Friday 2011 was safe at most of its nearly 4,000 U.S. stores despite "a few unfortunate incidents."

Black Friday - named that because it puts retailers "in the black" - has become more intense as companies compete for customers in a weak economy, said Jacob Jacoby, an expert on consumer behavior at New York University.

The idea of luring in customers with a few "doorbuster" deals has long been a staple of the post-Thanksgiving sales. But now stores are opening earlier, and those deals are getting more extreme, he said.

"There's an awful lot of psychology going on here," Jacoby said. "There's the notion of scarcity - when something's scarce it's more valued. And a resource that can be very scarce is time: If you don't get there in time, it's going to be gone."

There's also a new factor, Williams said: the rise of coupon websites like Groupon and LivingSocial, the online equivalents of doorbusters that usually deliver a single, one-day offer with savings of up to 80 percent on museum tickets, photo portraits, yoga classes and the like.

The services encourage impulse buying and an obsession with bargains, Williams said, while also getting businesses hooked on quick infusions of customers.

"The whole notion of getting a deal, that's all we've seen for the last two years," Williams said. "It's about stimulating consumers' quick reactions. How do we get their attention quickly? How do we create cash flow for today?"

To grab customers first, some stores are opening late on Thanksgiving Day, turning bargain-hunting from an early-morning activity into an all-night slog, said Ed Fox, a marketing professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Midnight shopping puts everyone on edge and also makes shoppers targets for muggers, he said.

In fact, robbery appeared to be the motive behind the shooting in San Leandro, about 15 miles east of San Francisco. Police said robbers shot a victim as he was walking to a car with his purchases around 1:45 a.m. on Friday.

"There are so many hours now where people are shopping in the darkness that it provides cover for people who are going to try to steal or rob those who are out in numbers," Fox said.

The violence has prompted some analysts to wonder if the sales are worth it, and what solutions might work.

In a New York Times column this week, economist Robert Frank proposed slapping a 6 percent sales tax on purchases between 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving and 6 a.m. on Friday in an attempt to stop the "arms race" of earlier and earlier sales.

Small retailers, meanwhile, are pushing so-called Small Business Saturday to woo customers who are turned off by the Black Friday crush. President Barack Obama even joined in, going book shopping on Saturday at a small bookstore a few blocks from the White House.

"A lot of retailers, independent retailers, are making the conscious decision to not work those crazy hours," said Patricia Norins, a retail consultant for American Express.

Next up is Cyber Monday, when online retailers put their wares on sale. But on Saturday many shoppers said they still prefer buying at the big stores, despite the frenzy.

Thomas said she likes the time with her sisters and the hustle of the mall too much to stay home and just shop online.

To her, the more pressing problem was that the Thanksgiving weekend sales didn't seem very good.

"If I'm going to get shot, at least let me get a good deal," Thomas said.

Tentative deal moves the NBA lockout closer to end

Tentative deal moves the NBA lockout closer to end

AP Photo
FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2011 file photo, NBA commissioner David Stern speaks during a news conference in New York. NBA owners and players reached a tentative agreement early Saturday morning Nov. 26, 2011 to end the 149-day lockout. The league plans a 66-game season and aims to open camps Dec. 9.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Now that there's a handshake deal on a new labor agreement, NBA Commissioner David Stern and union executives must persuade owners and players to approve it, guaranteeing a Christmas Day tripleheader.

After a 149-day lockout, owners and players reached the tentative deal early Saturday. It comes at a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars for both sides, on top of the fans and jobs that were lost during the stalemate. And it leaves the NBA with its second shortened season, with the hope of getting in 66 games instead of a full 82-game schedule.

The lockout isn't quite over, but it appears the NBA's nuclear winter will be avoided.

After a marathon 15-hour negotiating session Friday into Saturday, Stern accepted some congratulations, headed for another short night of sleep, then planned to brief his owners on a deal that could change the way they do business.

Players, looking beat and beaten, face a tougher healing process in approving an agreement that significantly limits their earnings.

First, players must drop a lawsuit against the league, reform their disbanded union and approve the handshake deal that was reached shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday. Players' association executives Derek Fisher and Maurice Evans hardly looked enthused about the agreement as they sat next to executive director Billy Hunter on the same side of a conference table as Stern, Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver and Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the league's labor relations committee.

But at least they weren't sitting in a courtroom, where they appeared headed less than two weeks earlier.

Just 12 days after talks broke down and Stern declared the NBA could be headed to a "nuclear winter," he sat next to Hunter to announce the 10-year deal, with either side able to opt out after the sixth year.

Owners relented slightly on their previous insistence that players receive no more than 50 percent of basketball-related income after they were guaranteed 57 percent in the old collective bargaining agreement. The target is still a 50-50 split, but with a band from 49 percent to 51 percent that gives the players a better chance of reaching the highest limit than previously proposed.

Owners were warned on a conference call Friday night that a deal did not seem imminent, a person briefed on the details told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Then, shortly past 3 a.m., many league officials received an e-mail from Silver saying they had a deal - news that apparently caught many off guard.

Silver's e-mail, the person said, did not contain any specifics about the terms of the tentative agreement.

Those details were expected to be provided on a late-afternoon conference call of the labor relations committee Saturday. The agenda was expected to include when franchises may begin contacting their players again and when team facilities could re-open in advance of training camps.

Stern said he expects the labor committee to endorse the deal and recommend it to the full board.

The players' side has revealed little of its feelings about the deal, noting the pending antitrust litigation in its desire for keeping details quiet. But players always preferred to be on the court, rather than in it, and now they finally have the chance.

"I think it was the ability of the parties to decide it was necessary to compromise and to kind of put this thing back together in some kind of way, to put an end to the litigation and everything that that entails," Hunter said.

Players filed an amended antitrust lawsuit in Minnesota on Monday that could have earned the players billions but surely would have come at the cost of at least the entire 2011-12 season.

Both sides said all along the only way to a deal was through negotiating. They got back together Tuesday, setting the way for the pivotal meeting that began Friday.

"I think we saw a willingness of both sides to compromise yet a little more and to reach this agreement," Silver said. "We look forward to opening on Christmas Day and we are excited to bring NBA basketball back and that's most important."

Both sides are expected to OK the pact, which would pave the way for training camps and free agency to open simultaneously Dec. 9.

President Barack Obama gave a thumbs-up when told about the tentative settlement after he finished playing basketball at Fort McNair in Washington on Saturday morning.

Because the union disbanded, a new collective bargaining agreement can only be completed once the union has reformed. Drug testing and other issues still must be negotiated between the players and the league, which also must dismiss its lawsuit regarding the legality of the lockout.

"We're very pleased we've come this far," Stern said. "There's still a lot of work to be done."

When the NBA returns, owners hope to find the type of parity that exists in the NFL, where the small-market Green Bay Packers are the current champions. The NBA has been dominated in recent years by the biggest spenders, with Boston, Los Angeles and Dallas winning the last four titles.

"I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free-agent market the way they've been able to in the past. It's not the system we sought out to get in terms of a harder cap, but the luxury tax is harsher than it was. We hope it's effective," Silver said.

"We feel ultimately it will give fans in every community hope that their team can compete for championships."

Owners locked out the players July 1, and the sides spent most of the summer and fall battling over the division of revenues and other changes owners wanted in a new collective bargaining agreement. They said they lost hundreds of millions of dollars in each year of the former deal, ratified in 2005, and they wanted a system where the big-market teams wouldn't have the ability to outspend their smaller counterparts.

Players fought against those changes, not wanting to see any teams taken out of the market when they became free agents.

"This was not an easy agreement for anyone. The owners came in having suffered substantial losses and feeling the system wasn't working fairly across all teams," Silver said. "I certainly know the players had strong views about expectations in terms of what they should be getting from the system. It required a lot of compromise from both parties' part."

Stern denied the antitrust litigation was a factor in accelerating a deal, but things happened relatively quickly after the players filed.

"For us the litigation is something that just has to be dealt with," Stern said. "It was not the reason for the settlement. The reason for the settlement was we've got fans, we've got players who would like to play and we've got others who are dependent on us. And it's always been our goal to reach a deal that was fair to both sides and get us playing as soon as possible, but that took a little time."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sharp elbows: Shoppers scuffle on Black Thursday

Sharp elbows: Shoppers scuffle on Black Thursday

AP Photo
Early bird shoppers watch a Harry Potter movie being shown on a giant screen outside the Best Buy store in Mayfield Hts., Ohio while waiting for the doors to open at midnight on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. This weekend, many stores will for the first time use midnight openings along with the usual bevy of deals as they try to lure consumers, whose appetite for good-buys has been increasing since the Great Recession.

A shopper in Los Angeles pepper-sprayed her competition for an Xbox and scuffles broke out elsewhere around the U.S. as bargain-hunters crowded stores in an earlier-than-usual start to the madness known as Black Friday.

For the first time, chains such as Target, Best Buy and Kohl's opened their doors at midnight on the most anticipated shopping day of the year. Toys R Us opened for the second straight year on Thanksgiving itself. And some shoppers arrived with sharp elbows.

Near Muskegon, Mich., a teenage girl was knocked down and stepped on several times after getting caught in the rush to a sale in the electronics department at a Walmart. She suffered minor injuries.

On Thanksgiving night, a Walmart in Los Angeles brought out a crate of discounted Xboxes, and as a crowd waited for the video game players to be unwrapped, a woman fired pepper spray at the other shoppers "in order to get an advantage," police said.

Ten people suffered cuts and bruises in the chaos, and 10 others had minor injuries from the spray, authorities said. The woman got away in the confusion, and it was not immediately clear whether she got an Xbox.

On Friday morning, police said, two women were injured and a man was charged after a fight broke out at an upstate New York Walmart. A man was arrested in a scuffle at a jewelry counter at a Walmart in Kissimmee, Fla.

Wal-Mart Stores, the nation's biggest retailer, has taken steps in recent years to control its Black Friday crowds following the 2008 death of one of its workers in a stampede of shoppers. This year, it staggered its door-buster deals instead of offering them all at once.

Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter said Black Friday was safe at most of its nearly 4,000 U.S., but there were "a few unfortunate incidents."

The incidents were attributed to two converging Black Friday trends: Crowds are getting bigger as stores open earlier and stay open later. At the same time, cash-strapped shoppers are competing for deals on a small number of gifts that everybody wants - tablet computers, TVs and game consoles like Xbox, Nintendo 3S and Wii.

That's a shift from years past, when there was a wider range of must-have items.

"The more the people, the more the occurrences," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with market research firm The NPD Group.

A record number of shoppers are expected this weekend to take advantage of discounts of up to 70 percent. For three days starting on Black Friday, 152 million people are expected to shop, either online or in stores, an increase of about 10 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Thanksgiving weekend, particularly Black Friday, is huge for retailers. Over the past six years, Black Friday was the biggest sales day of the year, and it is expected to keep that crown this year, though shoppers seem to be procrastinating more every year, and the fate of the holiday season is increasingly coming down to the last few days before Christmas.

Last year, the Thanksgiving shopping weekend accounted for 12.1 percent of overall holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak, a research firm. Black Friday made up about half of that.

ShopperTrak is expected to release sales data on Saturday on how Black Friday fared, but a better picture will emerge when major retailers report their November sales figures next Thursday.

In addition to opening earlier than usual this year, some stores offered to match their competitors' prices, rolled out layaway programs or offered more door-buster deals than last year.

Emmanuel Merced and his brother showed up at a Best Buy in New York at 3 p.m. on Wednesday so they could be the first in line when it opened at midnight Thursday to grab a Sharp 42-inch TV for $199.99, a PlayStation 3 with games for $199.99 and wireless headphones for $30.

Merced said he likes camping out for Black Friday and figured he saved 50 percent.

"I like the experience of it," said Merced, who plans to spend $3,000 to $4,000 on gifts this season.

To be sure, not every place was full on Black Friday. With so many major stores opening at midnight, many people stayed up late and shopped early. Then there were those who stuck to their normal routine of going to stores that opened later Friday morning. That left a lull in the hours just before and after daybreak.

At a Target on Chicago's North Side, crowds were light four hours after the store opened at midnight. And door-buster deals, including the typically quick-to-sell-out TVs and game systems, remained piled up in their boxes. Shoppers pushed carts through mostly empty aisles while thumbing through circulars, and employees in Santa hats roamed the store. There was no Christmas music - or any music - playing.

Rebecca Carter, a graduate assistant, began Black Friday shopping at 11 p.m. on Thursday and left Target around 4 a.m. carrying a bag full of pillows. Carter said the crowds were noticeably lighter this year as she and a friend picked up a 32-inch TV for $180 and a laptop for $198, along with toys and pajamas.

"It's quiet," she said. "It was shocking."

Melody Snyder of Vancouver, Wash., had braced herself for anarchy when she got to Walmart at 6 a.m. but was pleasantly surprised when she pulled into the parking lot.

"I got here and thought, `Where is everyone?'" said Snyder, who found some Barbies and other toys sold out but was still able to find gifts for her three kids.

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