Wall Street Week Ahead: A lump of coal for "Fiscal Cliff-mas"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street traders are going to have to pack their tablets and work computers in their holiday luggage after all.


A traditionally quiet week could become hellish for traders as politicians in Washington are likely to fall short of an agreement to deal with $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts due to kick in early next year. Many economists forecast that this "fiscal cliff" will push the economy into recession.


Thursday's debacle in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner failed to secure passage of his own bill that was meant to pressure President Obama and Senate Democrats, only added to worry that the protracted budget talks will stretch into 2013.


Still, the market remains resilient. Friday's decline on Wall Street, triggered by Boehner's fiasco, was not enough to prevent the S&P 500 from posting its best week in four.


"The markets have been sort of taking this in stride," said Sandy Lincoln, chief market strategist at BMO Asset Management U.S. in Chicago, which has about $38 billion in assets under management.


"The markets still basically believe that something will be done," he said.


If something happens next week, it will come in a short time frame. Markets will be open for a half-day on Christmas Eve, when Congress will not be in session, and will close on Tuesday for Christmas. Wall Street will resume regular stock trading on Wednesday, but volume is expected to be light throughout the rest of the week with scores of market participants away on a holiday break.


For the week, the three major U.S. stock indexes posted gains, with the Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> up 0.4 percent, the S&P 500 <.spx> up 1.2 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> up 1.7 percent.


Stocks also have booked solid gains for the year so far, with just five trading sessions left in 2012: The Dow has advanced 8 percent, while the S&P 500 has climbed 13.7 percent and the Nasdaq has jumped 16 percent.


IT COULD GET A LITTLE CRAZY


Equity volumes are expected to fall sharply next week. Last year, daily volume on each of the last five trading days dropped on average by about 49 percent, compared with the rest of 2011 - to just over 4 billion shares a day exchanging hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT in the final five sessions of the year from a 2011 daily average of 7.9 billion.


If the trend repeats, low volumes could generate a spike in volatility as traders keep track of any advance in the cliff talks in Washington.


"I'm guessing it's going to be a low volume week. There's not a whole lot other than the fiscal cliff that is going to continue to take the headlines," said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research, in Cincinnati.


"A lot of people already have a foot out the door, and with the possibility of some market-moving news, you get the possibility of increased volatility."


Economic data would have to be way off the mark to move markets next week. But if the recent trend of better-than-expected economic data holds, stocks will have strong fundamental support that could prevent selling from getting overextended even as the fiscal cliff negotiations grind along.


Small and mid-cap stocks have outperformed their larger peers in the last couple of months, indicating a shift in investor sentiment toward the U.S. economy. The S&P MidCap 400 Index <.mid> overcame a technical level by confirming its close above 1,000 for a second week.


"We view the outperformance of the mid-caps and the break of that level as a strong sign for the overall market," Schaeffer's Bell said.


"Whenever you have flight to risk, it shows investors are beginning to have more of a risk appetite."


Evidence of that shift could be a spike in shares in the defense sector, expected to take a hit as defense spending is a key component of the budget talks.


The PHLX defense sector index <.dfx> hit a historic high on Thursday, and far outperformed the market on Friday with a dip of just 0.26 percent, while the three major U.S. stock indexes finished the day down about 1 percent.


Following a half-day on Wall Street on Monday ahead of the Christmas holiday, Wednesday will bring the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. It is expected to show a ninth-straight month of gains.


U.S. jobless claims on Thursday are seen roughly in line with the previous week's level, with the forecast at 360,000 new filings for unemployment insurance, compared with the previous week's 361,000.


(Wall St Week Ahead runs every Friday. Questions or comments on this column can be emailed to: rodrigo.campos(at)thomsonreuters.com)


(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)



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Douglas wins AP female athlete of the year honors


When Gabby Douglas allowed herself to dream of being the Olympic champion, she imagined having a nice little dinner with family and friends to celebrate. Maybe she'd make an appearance here and there.


"I didn't think it was going to be crazy," Douglas said, laughing. "I love it. But I realized my perspective was going to have to change."


Just a bit.


The teenager has become a worldwide star since winning the Olympic all-around title in London, the first African-American gymnast to claim gymnastics' biggest prize. And now she has earned another honor. Douglas was selected The Associated Press' female athlete of the year, edging out swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.


"I didn't realize how much of an impact I made," said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. "My mom and everyone said, 'You really won't know the full impact until you're 30 or 40 years old.' But it's starting to sink in."


In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).


Britney Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the NCAA title, and skier Lindsey Vonn each got 18 votes. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who won three gold medals in London, and Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the Americans' 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game, also received votes.


"One of the few years the women's (Athlete of the Year) choices are more compelling than the men's," said Julie Jag, sports editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.


Douglas is the fourth gymnast to win one of the AP's annual awards, which began in 1931, and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. She also finished 15th in voting for the AP sports story of the year.


Douglas wasn't even in the conversation for the Olympic title at the beginning of the year. That all changed in March when she upstaged reigning world champion and teammate Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York, showing off a new vault, an ungraded uneven bars routine and a dazzling personality that would be a hit on Broadway and Madison Avenue.


She finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, then beat her two weeks later at the Olympic trials. With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile.


By the time the Americans got to London, Douglas had emerged as the most consistent gymnast on what was arguably the best team the U.S. has ever had.


She posted the team's highest score on all but one event in qualifying. She was the only gymnast to compete in all four events during team finals, when the Americans beat the Russians in a rout for their second Olympic title, and first since 1996. Two nights later, Douglas claimed the grandest prize of all, joining Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin as what Bela Karolyi likes to call the "Queen of Gymnastics."


But while plenty of other athletes won gold medals in London, none captivated the public quite like Gabby.


Fans ask for hugs in addition to photographs and autographs, and people have left restaurants and cars upon spotting her. She made Barbara Walters' list of "10 Most Fascinating People," and Forbes recently named her one of its "30 Under 30." She has deals with Nike, Kellogg Co. and AT&T, and agent Sheryl Shade said Douglas has drawn interest from companies that don't traditionally partner with Olympians or athletes.


"She touched so many people of all generations, all diversities," Shade said. "It's her smile, it's her youth, it's her excitement for life. ... She transcends sport."


Douglas' story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato. She was just 14 when she convinced her mother to let her leave their Virginia Beach, Va., home and move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson's coach. Though her host parents, Travis and Missy Parton, treated Douglas as if she was their fifth daughter, Douglas was so homesick she considered quitting gymnastics.


She's also been open about her family's financial struggles, hoping she can be a role model for lower income children.


"I want people to think, 'Gabby can do it, I can do it,'" Douglas said. "Set that bar. If you're going through struggles or injuries, don't let it stop you from what you want to accomplish."


The grace she showed under pressure — both on and off the floor — added to her appeal. When some fans criticized the way she wore her hair during the Olympics, Douglas simply laughed it off.


"They can say whatever they want. We all have a voice," she said. "I'm not going to focus on it. I'm not really going to focus on the negative."


Besides, she's having far too much fun.


Her autobiography, "Grace, Gold and Glory," is No. 4 on the New York Times' young adult list. She, Wieber and Fierce Five teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney recently wrapped up a 40-city gymnastics tour. She met President Barack Obama last month with the rest of the Fierce Five, and left the White House with a souvenir.


"We got a sugar cookie that they were making for the holidays," Douglas said. "I took a picture of it."


Though her busy schedule hasn't left time to train, Douglas insists she still intends to compete through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.


No female Olympic champion has gone on to compete at the next Summer Games since Nadia Comaneci. But Douglas is still a relative newcomer to the elite scene — she'd done all of four international events before the Olympics — and Chow has said she hasn't come close to reaching her full potential. She keeps up with Chow through email and text messages, and plans to return to Iowa after her schedule clears up in the spring.


Of course, plenty of other athletes have said similar things and never made it back to the gym. But Douglas is determined, and she gets giddy just talking about getting a new floor routine.


"I think there's even higher bars to set," she said.


Because while being an Olympic champion may have changed her life, it hasn't changed her.


"I may be meeting cool celebrities and I'm getting amazing opportunities," she said. "But I'm still the same Gabby."


___


AP Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale contributed to this report.


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Annual bird counts give scientists climate clues






MAD ISLAND, Texas (AP) — Armed with flashlights, recordings of bird calls, a small notebook and a stash of candy bars, scientist Rich Kostecke embarked on an annual 24-hour Christmastime count of birds along the Texas Gulf Coast. Yellow rail. Barn owl. Bittern. Crested Cara-Cara. Kostecke rattled off the names and scribbled them in his notebook.


His data, along with that from more than 50 other volunteers spread out into six groups across the 7,000-acre Mad Island preserve, will be analyzed regionally and then added to a database with the results of more than 2,200 other bird counts going on from mid-December to Jan. 5 across the Western Hemisphere.






The count began in 1900 as a National Audubon Society protest of holiday hunts that left piles of bird and animal carcasses littered across the country. It now helps scientists understand how birds react to short-term weather events and may provide clues as to how they will adapt as temperatures rise and climate changes.


“Learning the changes of habit in drought could help us know what will happen as it gets warmer and drier,” said Kostecke, a bird expert and associate director of conservation, research and planning at the Nature Conservancy in Texas.


Scientists saw birds change their habits during last year’s historic drought that parched most of Texas. Some birds that normally winter on the coast — such as endangered whooping cranes — arrived and immediately turned back when they couldn’t find enough food. Other birds didn’t even bother flying to the coast. Snowy owls, who sometimes migrate from the Arctic to Montana, suddenly showed up as far south as Texas.


There has been some rain this year, but Texas still hasn’t fully recovered from the drought and many areas remain unusually dry. Wetlands, a crucial bird habitat, have been damaged. Trees and brush are dead or brown. There are fewer flooded rice fields, prime foraging grounds for birds. And sandhill cranes, for the second winter in a row, are staying in Nebraska.


An initial report on the 24-hour count that began midnight Monday and ended midnight Tuesday included 233 different species — a drop of 11 from last year when 244 were counted on Mad Island. While the area likely still has one of the United States’ most diverse bird populations, the species that were missing raise questions.


Where are the wild turkeys? Why were no black rails found? What about fox sparrows and the 13 other species that are commonly counted on the preserve? Where have they gone?


“There are several possibilities,” Kostecke surmised. “Conditions may be better in the east, like Louisiana. Some may still be north, because it’s been mild, and they tend to follow the freeze line.”


With weather in the north still relatively warm, some birds might choose to stay put and conserve energy for the nesting season, Kostecke added.


Similar changes in bird behavior could be seen this year in the Midwest and parts of the South, areas that have been gripped by a massive drought that covered two-thirds of the nation at its height. The drought’s severity is unusual, but scientists warn that such weather could become more common with global warming. Birds — as well as other animals — will have to adapt, and the data collected in the Christmas count gives crucial insight on how they might do that.


The dataset is notable for its size and the decades that it covers. Along with showing how birds adapt to climate change, it reveals the impact of environmental changes, such as habitat loss, which has contributed to a 40 percent decline in bird numbers during the past 40 years, said Gary Langham, vice president and chief scientist for the National Audubon Society.


“We’ve converted the landscape dramatically, and then you add climate change to the mix … and the results are more alarming,” Langham said.


Scientists have used the data to predict bird populations and behavior in 2020, 2050 and 2080. They also could use it to advance conservation work or calls for emergency action, he said.


Birds, though, are only one part of an ecosystem. As they move from place to place, they encounter new predators and species that may be competing for the same food. Vegetation also is changing as the Earth warms and some areas become more drought-prone. What happens as all these changes take place?


“It’s the million dollar question. When you have that kind of ecological disruption, no one knows what happens,” Langham said. “There are going to be winners and losers. There will be some that become more common, and some that will go extinct.”


The survivors are the big unknown.


___


Online:


Christmas Bird Count: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count


___


Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP


Science News Headlines – Yahoo! News





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Will media stay on gun story?






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Howard Kurtz: Conventional wisdom is that media will lose interest in guns

  • He says that's been the pattern of media behavior after Columbine, other shootings

  • This time seems like it might be different, he says

  • Kurtz: Reporters profoundly shaken by story, should stay on it




Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.


(CNN) -- The conventional wisdom is that Newtown has just a few more days to run as a major media story.


The reporters are pulling out of the grief-stricken Connecticut town, which means no more live shots every hour. The White House press corps responded to President Obama's announcement Wednesday of a task force on gun control with the first three reporters asking about the impending fiscal cliff. And after every previous mass shooting, from Columbine to Aurora, the media's attention has soon drifted away.


But I believe this time will be different.



Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz




I believe the horror of 20 young children being gunned down has pricked the conscience of those in the news business, along with the rest of America.


I could be wrong, of course. The press is notorious for suffering from ADD.


But every conversation I've had with journalists has quickly drifted to this subject and just as quickly turned intense. Most have talked about how their thoughts have centered on their children, and grandchildren, and the unspeakable fear of anything happening to them. All have spoken about how hard it is to watch the coverage, and many have recalled crying as they watch interviews with the victims' families, or even when Obama teared up while addressing the nation.


Watch: Blaming Jon Stewart for the Newtown Shootings?


I've watched Fox's Megyn Kelly choke back tears on the air after watching an interview from Newtown. I've heard CNN's Don Lemon admit that he is on the verge of crying all the time. I've seen MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, say that day in Connecticut "changed everything" and prompted him to rethink his longstanding opposition to gun control, which earned him top ratings from the NRA.


Maybe Newtown will be the 9/11 of school safety.


Watch: Media Fantasy: Touting Ben Affleck (Uh Huh) for the Senate








The media paid scant attention to gun control in the past, in part because of a conviction that the NRA would block any reform on Capitol Hill. At the same time, they took their cue from the fact that officeholders in both parties were avoiding the issue at all costs—Republicans because they mainly support the status quo, Democrats because they mostly deem it political poison.


But since when is it our job solely to take dictation from pols? When it comes to subjects like climate change and same-sex marriage, the press has been out ahead of the political establishment. Given the carnage in Newtown as the latest example, journalists should demand whether we can do better. The fact that Obama now promises to submit gun legislation to Congress will help the narrative, but it shouldn't be a mandatory requirement for coverage.


Watch: From Joe Scarborough to Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media meltdown


This is not a plea for a press-driven crusade for gun control. In fact, it's imperative that journalists be seen as honest brokers who are fair to all sides. MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, in an interview with Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who opposes gun restrictions, said: "So we need to just be complacent in the fact that we can send our children to school to be assassinated." That is demonization, just as some conservative pundits are unfairly accusing liberal commentators who push for gun control of "politicizing" a tragedy or of pushing God out of the public schools.


The question of school safety extends beyond guns to mental illness and societal influences. With even some NRA supporters asking why law-abiding hunters need automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines, it's time for a nuanced debate that goes beyond the usual finger-pointing. Bob Costas got hammered for using an NFL murder-suicide to raise the gun issue during a halftime commentary, but he was right to broach the subject.


Here is where the media have not just an opportunity but a responsibility. The news business has no problem giving saturation coverage to such salacious stories as David Petraeus' dalliance with Paula Broadwell. Isn't keeping our children safe from lunatics far more important by an order of magnitude?


I think the press is up to the challenge. Based on what I've heard in the voices of people in the profession, they will not soon forget what happened in Newtown. And they shouldn't let the rest of us forget either.


Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter


Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.






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2 children dead in Englewood fire, 2 others rescued

A 3-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl died this morning after they and two other children were left home alone in the Englewood neighborhood, officials say. (Posted Dec. 22nd, 2012)









A young boy and girl died this morning after they and two other children were left home alone in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side, officials say.


The girl, 2, and the boy, 3, were found in a back bedroom after firefighters cut through burglar bars on the brick and stone two-flat in the 6400 block of South Paulina Street.


"Please, sergeant, please," a relative pleaded with an officer outside the home. "They're 2 and 3 years old."








A hot plate being used for heat sparked the fire while the four children, alone in the apartment, slept in two bedrooms, according to fire officials. Police said the children's mother and aunt were being questioned.


The surviving children, a 7-year-old boy and his 4-year-old brother, were rescued by an aunt and interviewed by investigators at a neighbor's home.


Darnell, 7, said he and Marquis, 4, had fallen asleep watching Batman cartoons. The two other children -- his 2-year-old sister and 3-year-old cousin -- were asleep in another bedroom. When he woke up, the fire was already burning.


"When the fire started, everything shut off," Darnell said.


The boy said he and Marquis were in a bedroom by the kitchen and "the fire was in the front room where the couch is at. When we saw the fire, it was like in the front room, then it was by the bathroom door."


Darnell said his aunt came rushing through the front door. "When (she) saw the fire, she called all our names. When I opened the door, she told me, 'Come on, the fire's getting closer.' I coughed, my auntie was choking. My sister was banging on the door.


"When we got outside, police passed us, then drove backward and came up because there was a fire," he said.


Darnell and Marquis were brought to a neighbor's house, where investigators from the Bomb and Arson unit and the Office of Fire Investigations (OFI) talked to them.


The investigator from OFI squatted down while talking to the boys. Only Darnell spoke. Marquis was quiet the entire time. Darnell spoke to a Tribune reporter afterward as he sat with four neighbors in their home.


The children were later taken into protective custody by the Department of Children and Family Services.


When firefighters arrived around 3:30 a.m., they weren't able to get into the home because of intense heat and fire, a Chicago Fire Department official said. Fire was heavy throughout the basement and first floor, he said.


Firefighters cut through burglar bars on the windows, he said.


Firefighters eventually found the two children cuddled up in a bed, fire officials said at a news conference.


The basement windows were all shattered. A white Christmas tree, smudged with smoke, stood near front room window.


A neighbor told an investigator that the second-floor tenants recently moved out of the brick and stone two-flat.


pnickeas@tribune.com


Twitter: @PeterNickeas





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Vice president quits as Egypt votes on constitution


CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's vice-president resigned on Saturday as Egyptians voted in a referendum that is expected to approve a new constitution that lays the foundations for the country's transition to democracy but will strip him of his role.


Authorities extended voting by four hours in the second and decisive round of the plebiscite on an Islamist-drafted constitution that the opposition has criticized as divisive and likely to cause more unrest.


Just hours before polls closed, Vice President Mahmoud Mekky announced his resignation, saying he wanted to quit last month but stayed on to help President Mohamed Mursi tackle a crisis that blew up when the Islamist leader assumed wide powers.


Mekky, a prominent judge who said he was uncomfortable in politics, disclosed earlier he had not been informed of Mursi's power grab. However, the timing of Mekky's move appeared linked to the fact there is no vice-presidential post under the draft constitution.


In a resignation letter, Mekky said that although he had held on in the post he had "realized for some time that the nature of political work did not suit my professional background as a judge".


Islamist supporters of Mursi say the charter is vital to move towards democracy, nearly two years after an Arab Spring revolt overthrew authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. It will help restore stability needed to fix a struggling economy, they say.


But the opposition says the document is divisive and has accused Mursi of pushing through a text that favors his Islamist allies while ignoring the rights of Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, as well as women.


"I'm voting 'no' because Egypt can't be ruled by one faction," said Karim Nahas, 35, a stockbroker, heading to a polling station in Giza, a province included in this round of voting which covers parts of greater Cairo.


At another polling station, some voters said they were more interested in ending Egypt's long period of political instability than in the Islamist aspects of the charter.


"We have to extend our hands to Mursi to help fix the country," said Hisham Kamal, an accountant.


Queues formed at some polling stations around the country and voting was extended by four hours to 11 p.m. (2100 GMT).


Unofficial tallies are likely to emerge within hours of the close, but the referendum committee may not declare an official result for the two rounds until Monday, after hearing appeals.


CHEATING ALLEGED


As polling opened on Saturday, a coalition of Egyptian rights groups reported a number of alleged irregularities.


They said some polling stations had opened late, that Islamists urging a "yes" vote had illegally campaigned at some stations, and complained of irregularities in voter registration irregularities, including the listing of one dead person.


Last week's first round of voting gave a 57 percent vote in favour of the constitution, according to unofficial figures.


Analysts expect another "yes" on Saturday because the vote covers rural and other areas seen as having more Islamist sympathizers. Islamists may also be able to count on many Egyptians who are simply exhausted by two years of upheaval.


Among the provisions of the new basic law are a limit of two four-year presidential terms. It says the principles of sharia law remain the main source of legislation but adds an article to explain this further. It also says Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia - a source of concern to Christians and other non-Muslims.


If the constitution is passed, a parliamentary election will be held in about two months. If not, an assembly will have to be set up to draft a new one.


After the first round of voting, the opposition said alleged abuses meant the first stage of the referendum should be re-run.


But the committee overseeing the two-stage vote said its investigations showed no major irregularities in voting on December 15, which covered about half of Egypt's 51 million voters.


MORE UNREST


Even if the charter is approved, the opposition say it is a recipe for trouble since it has not received sufficiently broad backing from the population. They say the result may go in Mursi's favour but it will not be a fair vote.


"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Mursi expanded his powers on November 22 and then pushed the constitution to a vote.


Protesters accused the president of acting like a pharaoh, and he was forced to issue a second decree two weeks ago that amended a provision putting his decisions above legal challenge.


Said cited "serious violations" on the first day of voting, and said anger against Mursi and his Islamist allies was growing. "People are not going to accept the way they are dealing with the situation."


At least eight people were killed in protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo this month. Islamists and rivals clashed on Friday in the second biggest city of Alexandria, hurling stones at each other. Two buses were torched.


The head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that represents Mursi's power base, said the vote was an opportunity for Egypt to move on.


"After the constitution is settled by the people, the wheels in all areas will turn, even if there are differences here and there," the Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, said as he went to vote in Beni Suef, south of Cairo.


"After choosing a constitution, all Egyptians will be moving in the same direction," he said.


The vote was staggered after many judges refused to supervise the ballot, meaning there were not enough to hold the referendum on a single day nationwide.


The first round was won by a slim enough margin to buttress opposition arguments that the text was divisive. Opponents who include liberals, leftists, Christians and more moderate-minded Muslims accuse Islamists of using religion to sway voters.


Islamists, who have won successive ballots since Mubarak's overthrow, albeit by narrowing margins, dismiss charges that they are exploiting religion and say the document reflects the will of a majority in the country where most people are Muslim.


(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan; Writing by Edmund Blair and Giles Elgood; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Jason Webb)



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Wall Street slides as fiscal deal unlikely before 2013

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks lost more than 1 percent on Friday after a Republican proposal for averting the "fiscal cliff" failed to pass, diminishing hopes that a deal would be reached soon in Washington.


Trading is expected to be volatile as investors view a fiscal agreement between the White House and Republicans before the end of the year as increasingly unlikely. Lower volume heading into next week's Christmas holiday could increase volatility. The CBOE Volatility Index, or VIX, <.vix> was up 10 percent.


Late on Thursday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner conceded there were insufficient votes from his party to pass a tax bill, dubbed "Plan B," to help avert the so-called fiscal cliff - $600 billion of tax hikes and spending cuts due to start in January. The fear is that failure to come up with a solution to avoid the cliff could tip the U.S. economy into recession.


Plan B had called for tax increases on those who earn $1 million or more a year, and the bill's failure suggested it would be difficult to get Republican support for the more expansive tax increases that Obama has urged, making it less likely an agreement will be reached between the White House and Republicans before the end of the year.


While Friday's slide reflected investors' anxiety, it was not a large enough drop to suggest they believed a deal would be reached too late to avoid damage to the economy, said Mark Lehmann, president of JMP Securities, in San Francisco.


"You could have easily woken up today and seen the market down 300 or 400 points, and everyone would have said, 'That's telling you this is really dire,'" Lehmann said.


"I think you get into mid-January and (the talks) keep going like this, you get worried, but I don't think we're going to get there."


Banking shares, which outperform in times of economic expansion and have led the market on signs of progress with resolving the fiscal impasse, were among the laggards. Citigroup Inc sank 2.7 percent to $39.10, while Bank of America slid 2.5 percent to $11.22. The KBW Banks index <.bkx> lost 1.7 percent.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 185.38 points, or 1.39 percent, to 13,126.34. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> tumbled 20.88 points, or 1.45 percent, to 1,422.81. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> lost 46.64 points, or 1.53 percent, to 3,003.74.


Even with the declines, the S&P 500 is up nearly 1 percent for the week and about 13 percent for the year, though uncertainty over the cliff may prompt many traders to lock in gains as the year draws to a close.


The day's round of data indicated that the economy showed surprising signs of resilience in November as consumer spending rose by the most in three years and a gauge of business investment jumped.


But separate data showed consumer sentiment slumped in December. The S&P Retail Index <.spxrt> fell 1.5 percent.


U.S.-listed shares of Research in Motion sank 17 percent to $11.72 after the Canadian company, which makes the BlackBerry, reported its first-ever decline in its subscriber numbers late on Thursday.


(Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Jan Paschal)



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Douglas wins AP female athlete of the year honors


When Gabby Douglas allowed herself to dream of being the Olympic champion, she imagined having a nice little dinner with family and friends to celebrate. Maybe she'd make an appearance here and there.


"I didn't think it was going to be crazy," Douglas said, laughing. "I love it. But I realized my perspective was going to have to change."


Just a bit.


The teenager has become a worldwide star since winning the Olympic all-around title in London, the first African-American gymnast to claim gymnastics' biggest prize. And now she has earned another honor. Douglas was selected The Associated Press' female athlete of the year, edging out swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.


"I didn't realize how much of an impact I made," said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. "My mom and everyone said, 'You really won't know the full impact until you're 30 or 40 years old.' But it's starting to sink in."


In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).


Britney Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the NCAA title, and skier Lindsey Vonn each got 18 votes. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who won three gold medals in London, and Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the Americans' 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game, also received votes.


"One of the few years the women's (Athlete of the Year) choices are more compelling than the men's," said Julie Jag, sports editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.


Douglas is the fourth gymnast to win one of the AP's annual awards, which began in 1931, and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. She also finished 15th in voting for the AP sports story of the year.


Douglas wasn't even in the conversation for the Olympic title at the beginning of the year. That all changed in March when she upstaged reigning world champion and teammate Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York, showing off a new vault, an ungraded uneven bars routine and a dazzling personality that would be a hit on Broadway and Madison Avenue.


She finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, then beat her two weeks later at the Olympic trials. With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile.


By the time the Americans got to London, Douglas had emerged as the most consistent gymnast on what was arguably the best team the U.S. has ever had.


She posted the team's highest score on all but one event in qualifying. She was the only gymnast to compete in all four events during team finals, when the Americans beat the Russians in a rout for their second Olympic title, and first since 1996. Two nights later, Douglas claimed the grandest prize of all, joining Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin as what Bela Karolyi likes to call the "Queen of Gymnastics."


But while plenty of other athletes won gold medals in London, none captivated the public quite like Gabby.


Fans ask for hugs in addition to photographs and autographs, and people have left restaurants and cars upon spotting her. She made Barbara Walters' list of "10 Most Fascinating People," and Forbes recently named her one of its "30 Under 30." She has deals with Nike, Kellogg Co. and AT&T, and agent Sheryl Shade said Douglas has drawn interest from companies that don't traditionally partner with Olympians or athletes.


"She touched so many people of all generations, all diversities," Shade said. "It's her smile, it's her youth, it's her excitement for life. ... She transcends sport."


Douglas' story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato. She was just 14 when she convinced her mother to let her leave their Virginia Beach, Va., home and move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson's coach. Though her host parents, Travis and Missy Parton, treated Douglas as if she was their fifth daughter, Douglas was so homesick she considered quitting gymnastics.


She's also been open about her family's financial struggles, hoping she can be a role model for lower income children.


"I want people to think, 'Gabby can do it, I can do it,'" Douglas said. "Set that bar. If you're going through struggles or injuries, don't let it stop you from what you want to accomplish."


The grace she showed under pressure — both on and off the floor — added to her appeal. When some fans criticized the way she wore her hair during the Olympics, Douglas simply laughed it off.


"They can say whatever they want. We all have a voice," she said. "I'm not going to focus on it. I'm not really going to focus on the negative."


Besides, she's having far too much fun.


Her autobiography, "Grace, Gold and Glory," is No. 4 on the New York Times' young adult list. She, Wieber and Fierce Five teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney recently wrapped up a 40-city gymnastics tour. She met President Barack Obama last month with the rest of the Fierce Five, and left the White House with a souvenir.


"We got a sugar cookie that they were making for the holidays," Douglas said. "I took a picture of it."


Though her busy schedule hasn't left time to train, Douglas insists she still intends to compete through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.


No Olympic champion has gone on to compete at the next Summer Games, but Douglas is still a relative newcomer to the elite scene — she'd done all of four international events before the Olympics — and Chow has said she hasn't come close to reaching her full potential. She keeps up with Chow through email and text messages, and plans to return to Iowa after her schedule clears up in the spring.


Of course, plenty of other athletes have said similar things and never made it back to the gym. But Douglas is determined, and she gets giddy just talking about getting a new floor routine.


"I think there's even higher bars to set," she said.


Because while being an Olympic champion may have changed her life, it hasn't changed her.


"I may be meeting cool celebrities and I'm getting amazing opportunities," she said. "But I'm still the same Gabby."


___


AP Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale contributed to this report.


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European Rocket Launches British and Mexican Satellites






PARIS — Europe’s Ariane 5 ECA heavy-lift rocket on Dec. 19 successfully launched telecommunications satellites for use by the British and Mexican governments in the rocket’s seventh and final campaign for 2012.


It was the 53rd consecutive success for Ariane 5, which has now gone 10 years without a failure.






The operators of the two satellites — the British Skynet 5D and the Mexsat Bicentenario — reported that both were sending signals and healthy in geostationary transfer orbit after separating from the Ariane 5 ECA upper stage.


The launch enabled the Evry, France-based Arianespace launch consortium to meet its goal of conducting 10 flights in 2012 — seven Ariane 5s, two Europeanized Soyuz vehicles and the inaugural flight of Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher — from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport on the northeast coast of South America.


Arianespace and European government officials hope that spreading the fixed spaceport costs over three vehicles in the coming years, coupled with upgrades expected for both Ariane 5 and Vega, will enable Arianespace to eke out a profit with a diminishing amount of annual government operating-cost support payments. [Photos: Amazing Night Launch of Ariane 5]


Ariane 5 ECA’s inability to generate a steady profit despite its decade of success and the fact that its direct competitors in the global commercial market have struggled in the past couple of years speaks volumes about the market’s business model, European government and industry officials say.


The Dec. 19 launch carried satellites ordered by commercial companies acting on behalf of government customers.


The Skynet 5D, built by Astrium Satellites under a contract with sister company Astrium Services, will be tested in orbit at 25 degrees east before moving to its operating slot at 53 degrees east in geostationary orbit.


The 4,800-kilogram Skynet 5D is the fourth, and likely the last, Skynet 5 satellite ordered under a 20-year partnership between the British Defence Ministry and Astrium Services. The contract runs to 2022, after which the ownership of the Skynet satellites will transfer to the British government, which will then likely organize a fresh competition for satellite services.


Astrium Services provides Skynet bandwidth to NATO and individual NATO governments in addition to its guaranteed service to British defense forces.


Riding in the lower position on the Ariane 5 ECA rocket was the Mexsat Bicentenario satellite, which will be used by the Mexican government to provide fixed telecommunications and Internet services to Mexican communications that are not attached to the country’s communications grid.


The 3,000-kilogram Mexsat, carrying eight Ku- and eight C-band transponders, was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., under contract to Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif.


The Mexican government in 2010 selected Boeing to provide the three-satellite Mexsat system under a $ 1 billion contract that includes two large Boeing-built mobile communications satellites, set for launch in 2013 and 2014, and the smaller Bicentenario spacecraft.


The U.S. Export-Import Bank provided $ 922 million in loans to support the financing of the three satellites’ construction by the two U.S. manufacturers.


Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, Mexico’s secretary of communications and transport, which manages the Mexsat program, said the total Mexsat budget is around $ 1.6 billion. He said after the launch that the Mexican government is committed to delivering Internet access to all its citizens, and that Mexsat is central to that effort.


This story was provided by Space News, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.


Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Space and Astronomy News Headlines – Yahoo! News





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Goodbye, U.S. Postal Service?




This Christmas could be the Post Office's last, says John Avlon.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • The U.S. Postal Service is bleeding money and heading toward insolvency

  • John Avlon: Congress can save the postal service in deal on the fiscal cliff

  • He says the urgency is clear, let's hope for a Christmas miracle

  • Avlon: But be prepared that Washington dysfunction can doom the postal service




Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.


(CNN) -- It's the time of year for dashing through the snow to the crowded post office, with arms full of holiday gifts for family and friends.


Not to break the atmosphere of holiday cheer, but this Christmas could be the last for the U.S. Postal Service. It is losing $25 million dollars a day and staring down insolvency -- unless Congress steps in to pass a reform package that reduces its costs.


With just a few days left in the congressional calendar, there is still some small hope for a Christmas miracle -- maybe the Postal Service can be saved as part of a deal on the fiscal cliff. But with even Hurricane Sandy relief stalled, skepticism is growing.



John Avlon

John Avlon



The real question is, what's taken them so long? After all, back in April the Senate passed an imperfect but bipartisan bill by 62-37. It would have saved some $20 billion, cut some 100 distribution centers, and reduced head count by an additional 100,000 through incentives for early retirement, while reducing red tape to encourage entrepreneurialism and keeping Saturday delivery in place for at least another two years. At the time, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said, "The situation is not hopeless; the situation is dire. My hope is that our friends over in the U.S. House, given the bipartisan steps we took this week, will feel a sense of urgency."



To which the House might as well have replied, "Not so much."


In August, the Postal Service defaulted for the first time, unable to make a $5.5 billion payment to fund future retirees' health benefits. The headline in Government Executive magazine said it all: "Postal Service defaults, Congress does nothing."


The usual suspects were at fault -- hyperpartisan politics and the ideological arrogance that always makes the perfect the enemy of the good.


House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa greeted the news of the Senate bill by calling it a "taxpayer-funded bailout." His primary complaint was that the Senate bill did not go far enough. He was not alone -- Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also expressed disappointment at the scope of the Senate bill, saying that it fell "far short of the Postal Service's plan."






But Issa's alternative couldn't even get to a vote in the Republican-controlled House. And so nothing happened. Even after the USPS defaulted on a second $5.5 billion payment, the response was crickets.


Washington insiders said that action would be taken after the election, when lawmakers would be free to make potentially unpopular decisions. But despite a series of closed-door meetings, nothing has been done.


It's possible that the nearly $20 billion in savings could be part of a fiscal cliff deal. Sen. Joseph Lieberman has suggested that ending Saturday delivery, except for packages, could be part of a compromise that could save big bucks down the road. Another aspect of a savings plan could be suspending the USPS' onerous obligation to fully fund its pension costs upfront, a requirement that would push many businesses into bankruptcy. And last fiscal year, the post office posted a record $15.9 billion loss.


"As the nation creeps toward the 'fiscal cliff,' the U.S. Postal Service is clearly marching toward a financial collapse of its own," says Carper. "The Postal Service's financial crisis is growing worse, not better. It is imperative that Congress get to work on this issue and find a solution immediately. ... Recently key House and Senate leaders on postal reform have had productive discussions on a path forward, and while there may be some differences of opinion in some of the policy approaches needed to save the Postal Service, there is broad agreement that reform needs to happen -- the sooner the better."


The urgency couldn't be clearer -- but even at this yuletide 11th hour, signs of progress are slim to none. If Congress fails to pass a bill, we'll be back to square one in the new year, with the Senate needing to pass a new bill which will then have to be ratified by the House. There is just no rational reason to think that lift will be any easier in the next Congress than in the current lame duck Congress, where our elected officials are supposedly more free to do the right thing, freed from electoral consequences.


So as you crowd your local post office this holiday season, look around and realize that the clock is ticking. The Postal Service is fighting for its life. And Congress seems determined to ignore its cries for help.


"Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night" can stop the U.S. Postal Service from making its appointed rounds -- but congressional division and dysfunction apparently can.


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.


Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.






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2 injured in CTA bus crash in Logan Square













Bus crash


A CTA bus traveling north on Kedzie crashed into several cars on both sides of the street.
(Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / December 21, 2012)



























































A Chicago Transit Authority bus driver and a passenger were injured this morning when a bus crashed into several parked cars in the city's Logan Square neighborhood.


The accident happened about 8:40 a.m. near Diversey and Kedzie avenues, said police and a CTA spokeswoman.


Preliminary information stated the bus driver lost consciousness and crashed into several parked  cars.





The driver of the bus and a passenger were injured, according to the CTA spokeswoman.


One person was taken to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center and the other was taken to Our Lady of the Resurrection Medical Center, said Fire Media spokesman Will Knight.


There was no immediate information available about their conditions.


The CTA was investigating the incident. 


dawilliams@tribune.com


Twitter: @neacynewslady






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Syrian rebels fight for strategic town in Hama province


BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels began to push into a strategic town in Syria's central Hama province on Thursday and laid siege to at least one town dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's minority sect, activists said.


The operation risks inflaming already raw sectarian tensions as the 21-month-old revolt against four decades of Assad family rule - during which the president's Alawite sect has dominated leadership of the Sunni Muslim majority - rumbles on.


Opposition sources said rebels had won some territory in the strategic southern town of Morek and were surrounding the Alawite town of al-Tleisia.


They were also planning to take the town of Maan, arguing that the army was present there and in al-Tleisia and was hindering their advance on nearby Morek, a town on the highway that runs from Damascus north to Aleppo, Syria's largest city and another battleground in the conflict.


"The rockets are being fired from there, they are being fired from Maan and al-Tleisia, we have taken two checkpoints in the southern town of Morek. If we want to control it then we need to take Maan," said a rebel captain in Hama rural area, who asked not to be named.


Activists said heavy army shelling had targeted the town of Halfaya, captured by rebels two days earlier. Seven people were killed, 30 were wounded, and dozens of homes were destroyed, said activist Safi al-Hamawi.


Hama is home to dozens of Alawite and Christian villages among Sunni towns, and activists said it may be necessary to lay siege to many minority areas to seize Morek. Rebels want to capture Morek to cut off army supply lines into northern Idlib, a province on the northern border with Turkey where rebels hold swathes of territory.


From an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, Alawites have largely stood behind Assad, many out of fear of revenge attacks. Christians and some other minorities have claimed neutrality, with a few joining the rebels and a more sizeable portion of them supporting the government out of fear of hardline Islamism that has taken root in some rebel groups.


Activists in Hama said rebels were also surrounding the Christian town of al-Suqeilabiya and might enter the city to take out army positions as well as those of "shabbiha" - pro-Assad militias, the bulk of whom are usually Alawite but can also include Christians and even Sunnis.


"We have been in touch with Christian opposition activists in al-Suqeilabiya and we have told them to stay downstairs or on the lowest floor of their building as possible, and not to go outside. The rebels have promised not to hurt anyone who stays at home," said activist Mousab al-Hamdee, speaking by Skype.


He said he was optimistic that potential sectarian tensions with Christians could be resolved but that Sunni-Alawite strife may be harder to suppress.


SECTARIAN FEARS


U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday that Syria's conflict was becoming more "overtly sectarian", with more civilians seeking to arm themselves and foreign fighters - mostly Sunnis - flocking in from 29 countries.


"They come from all over, Europe and America, and especially the neighboring countries," said Karen Abuzayd, one of the U.N. investigators, told a news conference in Brussels.


Deeper sectarian divisions may diminish prospects for post-conflict reconciliation even if Assad is ousted, and the influx of foreigners raises the risk of fighting spilling into neighboring countries riven by similar communal fault lines.


Some activists privately voiced concerns of sectarian violence, but the rebel commander in Hama said fighters had been told "violations" would not be tolerated and argued that the move to attack the towns was purely strategic.


"If we are fired at from a Sunni village that is loyal to the regime we go in and we liberate it and clean it," he said. "So should we not do the same when it comes to an Alawite village just because there is a fear of an all-out sectarian war? We respond to the source of fire."


President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's main ally and arms supplier, warned that any solution to the conflict must ensure government and rebel forces do not merely swap roles and fight on forever. It appeared to be his first direct comment on the possibility of a post-Assad Syria.


The West and some Arab states accuse Russia of shielding Assad after Moscow blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to increase pressure on Damascus to end the violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people. Putin said the Syrian people would ultimately decide their own fate.


Assad's forces have been hitting back at rebel advances with heavy shelling, particularly along the eastern ring of suburbs outside Damascus, where rebels are dominant.


A Syrian security source said the army was planning heavy offensives in northern and central Syria to stem rebel advances, but there was no clear sign of such operations yet.


Rebels seized the Palestinian refugee district of Yarmouk earlier this week, which put them within 3 km (2 miles) of downtown Damascus. Heavy shelling and fighting forced thousands of Palestinian and Syrian residents to flee the Yarmouk area.


Rebels said on Thursday they had negotiated to put the camp - actually a densely packed urban district - back into the hands of pro-opposition Palestinian fighters. There are some 500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Syria, and they have been divided by the uprising.


Palestinian factions, some backed by the government and others by the rebels, had begun fighting last week, a development that allowed Syrian insurgents to take the camp.


A resident in Damascus said dozens of families were returning to the camp but that the army had erected checkpoints. Many families were still hesitant to return.


LEBANON BORDER POST TAKEN


Elsewhere, Syrian insurgents took over an isolated border post on the western frontier with Lebanon earlier this week, local residents told Reuters on Thursday.


The rebels already hold much of the terrain along Syria's northern and eastern borders with Turkey and Iraq respectively.


They said around 20 rebels from the Qadissiyah Brigade overran the post at Rankus, which is linked by road to the remote Lebanese village of Tufail.


Video footage downloaded on the Internet on Thursday, dated December 16, showed a handful of fighters dressed in khaki fatigues and wielding rifles as they kicked down a stone barricade around a small, single-storey army checkpoint.


Syrian Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday for treatment of wounds sustained in a bomb attack on his ministry in Damascus a week ago.


Lebanese medical sources said Shaar had shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, stomach and legs but they were not critical.


The Syrian opposition has tried to peel off defectors from the government as well as from the army, though only a handful of high-ranking officials have abandoned Assad.


The conflict has divided many Syrian families. Security forces on Thursday arrested an opposition activist who is also the relative of Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian Observatory said. The man was arrested along with five other activists who are considered pacifists, it said.


Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim who has few powers in Assad's Alawite-dominated power structure, said earlier this week that neither side could win the war in Syria. He called for the formation of a national unity government.


(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Andrew Osborn)



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Wall Street flat amid stalemate in fiscal talks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were little changed on Thursday as investors fretted that a deal on the U.S. budget wouldn't come as soon as they had hoped after President Barack Obama threatened to veto a controversial Republican plan.


NYSE Euronext was the star of the day, surging more than 30 percent as the S&P 500's top percentage gainer, after IntercontinentalExchange Inc said it would buy the operator of the New York Stock Exchange for $8.2 billion.


NYSE was up 32.8 percent at $31.95, while ICE shares vacillated between gains and losses. The stock was last down 0.8 percent at $127.22.


The market barely reacted to a round of strong data, including an upward revision of gross domestic product growth and stronger-than-expected home sales, suggesting talks to avert the "fiscal cliff," steep tax hikes and spending cuts due in 2013, remain the primary focus for markets.


Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives pushed ahead with their own fiscal plan in a move that muddles negotiations with the White House. Obama has vowed to veto the plan.


While investors have hoped for an agreement to come soon between policy makers, this seems unlikely as wrangling continues over the details.


"At least in the posturing it looks as if there are ultimatums put on the table, which tends to box either side in," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.


Still, the absence of a significant sell-off shows "the market still believes that there will be an announcement of some sort. But as the clock is ticking, the most you're going to get is a stop-gap measure," said Krosby.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> edged down 3.77 points, or 0.03 percent, at 13,248.20. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> added 1.12 points, or 0.08 percent, to 1,436.93. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> slipped 3.58 points, or 0.12 percent, to 3,040.78.


Stocks rallied earlier in the week on signs of progress in the negotiations, led by banking and energy shares, which tend to outperform in times of economic expansion. On signs of complications, however, many have turned to hedging their bets through options and exchange-traded funds.


Herbalife fell 5.3 percent to $35.35 in the wake of news that hedge fund manager Bill Ackman was betting against the company as part of his big end-of-the-year short.


The U.S. economy grew 3.1 percent in the third quarter, faster than previously estimated, while the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits rose more than expected in the latest week.


"It is great to see this kind of growth, but investors know it could all disappear if there's no deal on the cliff," said Todd Schoenberger, managing partner at LandColt Capital in New York. "Macro data may be on the back burner for a while."


Existing home sales jumped 5.9 percent in November, more than expected, and by the fastest monthly place in three years. Housing shares <.hgx> gained 0.4 percent.


But KB Home slid 5.5 percent to $15.75 as the company reported higher homebuilding costs and expenses in the fourth quarter.


(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)



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Michael Phelps voted AP male athlete of year


Now that he's away from the pool, Michael Phelps can reflect — really reflect — on what he accomplished.


Pretty amazing stuff.


"It's kind of nuts to think about everything I've gone through," Phelps said. "I've finally had time to myself, to sit back and say, '... that really happened?' It's kind of shocking at times."


Not that his career needed a capper, but Phelps added one more honor to his staggering list of accomplishments Thursday — The Associated Press male athlete of the year.


Phelps edged out LeBron James to win the award for the second time, not only a fitting payoff for another brilliant Olympics (four gold medals and two silvers in swimming at the London Games) but recognition for one of the greatest careers in any sport.


Phelps finished with 40 votes in balloting by U.S. editors and broadcasters, while James was next with 37. Track star Usain Bolt, who won three gold medals in London, was third with 23.


Carl Lewis is the only other Olympic-related star to be named AP male athlete of the year more than once, taking the award for his track and field exploits in 1983 and '84. The only men honored more than twice are golf's Tiger Woods and cyclist Lance Armstrong (four times each), and basketball's Michael Jordan (three times).


"Obviously, it's a big accomplishment," Phelps said. "There's so many amazing male athletes all over the world and all over our country. To be able to win this is something that just sort of tops off my career."


Phelps retired at age 27 as soon as he finished his final race in London, having won more gold medals (18) and overall medals (22) than any other Olympian.


No one else is even close.


"That's what I wanted to do," Phelps said. "Now that it's over, it's something I can look back on and say, 'That was a pretty amazing ride.'"


The current ride isn't so bad either.


Set for life financially, he has turned his fierce competitive drive to golf, working on his links game with renowned coach Hank Haney as part of a television series on the Golf Channel. In fact, after being informed of winning the AP award, Phelps called in from the famed El Dorado Golf & Beach Club in Los Cabos, Mexico, where he was heading out with Haney to play a few more holes before nightfall.


"I can't really complain," Phelps quipped over the phone.


Certainly, he has no complaints about his swimming career, which helped turn a sport that most Americans only paid attention to every four years into more of a mainstream pursuit.


More kids took up swimming. More advertisers jumped on board. More viewers tuned in to watch.


While swimming is unlikely to ever match the appeal of football or baseball, it has carved out a nice little niche for itself amid all the other athletic options in the United States — largely due to Phelps' amazing accomplishments and aw-shucks appeal.


Just the fact that he won over James shows just how much pull Phelps still has. James had an amazing year by any measure: The league MVP won his first NBA title with the Miami Heat, picking up finals MVP honors along the way, and then starred on the gold medal-winning U.S. basketball team in London.


Phelps already had won the AP award in 2008 after his eight gold medals in Beijing, which broke Mark Spitz's record. Phelps got it again with a performance that didn't quite match up to the Great Haul of China, but was amazing in its own right.


After the embarrassment of being photographed taking a hit from a marijuana pipe and questioning whether he still had the desire to go on, Phelps returned with a vengeance as the London Games approached. Never mind that he was already the winningest Olympian ever. Never mind that he could've eclipsed the record for overall medals just by swimming on the relays.


He wanted to be one of those rare athletes who went out on top.


"That's just who he is," said Bob Bowman, his longtime coach. "He just couldn't live with himself if knew he didn't go out there and give it good shot and really know he's competitive. He doesn't know anything else but to give that kind of effort and have those kind of expectations."


Phelps got off to a rocky start in London, finishing fourth in the 400-meter individual medley, blown out of the water by his friend and rival, Ryan Lochte. It was only the second time that Phelps had not at least finished in the top three of an Olympic race, the first coming way back in 2000 when he was fifth in his only event of the Sydney Games as a 15-year-old.


To everyone looking in, Lochte seemed poised to become the new Phelps — while the real Phelps appeared all washed up.


But he wasn't going out like that.


No way.


Phelps rebounded to become the biggest star at the pool, edging Lochte in the 200 IM, contributing to a pair of relay victories, and winning his final individual race, the 100 butterfly. There were two silvers, as well, leaving Phelps with a staggering resume that will be awfully difficult for anyone to eclipse.


His 18 golds are twice as many as anyone else in Olympic history. His 22 medals are four clear of Larisa Latynina, a Soviet-era gymnast, and seven more than the next athlete on the list. Heck, if Phelps was a nation, he'd be 58th in the medal standings, just one behind India (population: 1.2 billion).


"When I'm flying all over the place, I write a lot in my journal," Phelps said. "I kind of relive all the memories, all the moments I had throughout my career. That's pretty special. I've never done that before. It's amazing when you see it all on paper."


Four months into retirement, Phelps has no desire to get back in the pool. Oh, he'll swim every now and then for relaxation, using the water to unwind rather than putting in one of his famously grueling practices. Golf is his passion at the moment, but he's also found time to cheer on his hometown NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, and start looking around for a racehorse that he and Bowman can buy together.


Phelps hasn't turned his back on swimming, either. He's got his name attached to a line of schools that he wants to take worldwide. He's also devoting more time to his foundation, which is dedicated to teaching kids to swim and funding programs that will grow the sport even more.


He's already done so much.


"His contribution to the way the world thinks about swimming is so powerful," Bowman said. "I don't think any other athlete has transformed his sport the way he's transformed swimming."


Phelps still receives regular texts from old friends and teammates, asking when he's going to give up on this retirement thing and come back the pool as a competitor.


He scoffs at the notion, sounding more sure of himself now than he did in London.


And if there's anything we've learned: Don't doubt Michael Phelps when he sets his mind on something.


"Sure, I could come back in another four years. But why?" he asked, not waiting for an answer. "I've done everything I wanted to do. There's no point in coming back."


___


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963


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Walking Catfish, Demon Bat Among 126 New Mekong Species






Beelzebub‘s bat, a walking catfish and a frog that sounds like a bird are among 126 species introduced to science in just a year in the incredibly diverse Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia, according to a report released this week by the conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF).


The walking catfish —  one of the 10 discoveries from 2011 highlighted in the report — doesn’t exactly walk. But the fish (Clarias gracilentus) can impressively wiggle across dry land like a snake while using its pectoral fins to push itself upright. The fish, discovered in streams on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, often lives in stagnant waters. When these pools dry up, it can walk away to a wetter home.






Among other fish found in 2011 were a rose-tinted, blind carp (Bangana musaei) that lives in subterranean caves and a miniature fish (Boraras naevus) that’s just 0.75 inches (2 centimeters) in length and marked by a large dark spot on its vibrant body, the report says.


Researchers also discovered last year a tiny demonic-looking creature appropriately named Beelzebub’s tube-nosed bat (Murina beelzebub). [The 10 Weirdest Animal Discoveries of 2012]


“We chose the name Beelzebub to reflect the dark ‘diabolic’ coloration of the new species and its fierce protective behaviour in the field,” Gabor Csorba, of the Hungarian Natural History Museum, said in a statement. The bat is found only in the tropical forests of Vietnam and is among two other tube-nosed bats identified in 2011.


And then there’s Quang’s tree frog (Gracixalus quangi), whose calls rival those of birds in their complexity, and the rare ruby-eyed green pit viper (Trimeresurus rubeus), which has striking red eyes and a very limited range that includes Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park.


“Very few people in the world have seen this snake,” Anita Malhotra, a molecular ecologist at Bangor University, said of the species. “We know very little about what it does.”


Conservationists warn that the astonishing biodiversity of the region is under threat because of shrinking habitats. According to the WWF report, 30 percent of the Greater Mekong’s forests have disappeared in just four decades. Fish could be especially vulnerable, and the report points to planned construction of the Xayaburi dam in Laos as a major risk.


“The Mekong River supports levels of aquatic biodiversity second only to the Amazon River,” Nick Cox, manager of the WWF species program in the region, said in a statement. “The Xayaburi dam would prove an impassable barrier for many fish species, signalling the demise for wildlife already known and as yet undiscovered.”


More than 1,700 new species have been described by science in the Greater Mekong since 1997. In 2011, 82 plants, 13 fish, 21 reptiles, five amphibians and five mammals were discovered.


Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We’re also on Facebook & Google+.


Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Is Newtown tipping point for change?









By Piers Morgan, CNN


December 20, 2012 -- Updated 1627 GMT (0027 HKT)









STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Piers Morgan: Past gun-related tragedies haven't led to any action

  • He says that must change, and he hosted a debate on the issue

  • Morgan: Laws must be changed to limit weapons, ammunition and enforce background checks

  • Rights of Americans who use guns for hunting and sport must be respected, he says




(CNN) -- On Wednesday night, I hosted a town hall-style debate on guns in America, talking to lawmakers, mass shooting survivors, lawyers, gun lobbyists -- anyone, basically, who has a strong opinion about what I consider to be the single biggest issue facing America today.


Since I joined CNN two years ago, there have been a series of gun-related tragedies, including the attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater massacre.


Each sparked a short-term debate about guns. Yet each debate fizzled out with zero action being taken to try and curb the use of deadly weapons on the streets of America.



Piers Morgan

Piers Morgan



Now, following the grotesque slaughter of 20 innocent young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I sense that the mood has changed.


We have reached a crucial moment in this debate, and I intend to use my platform to continue this conversation on Wednesday night and going forward. The media have previously been quick to move on to other stories after these tragic acts of gun violence. That must change.


Opinion: Don't let this moment pass without acting on gun control






I've made my own views clear on my show -- the senseless killing has to stop. High-powered assault rifles of the type used at Aurora and Newtown belong in the military and police, not in civilian hands. High-capacity magazines, too, should be banned. And background checks on anyone buying guns in America should be comprehensive and stringently enforced.


As President Barack Obama said, doing nothing is no longer an option.


But, at the same time, law-abiding Americans who want to protect themselves under the Second Amendment right to bear arms must be respected. As should the rights of Americans to use guns for hunting and sport.


This is a vital debate for the country. Some 12,000 people are murdered in the United States with guns every year, compared with just 35 in Britain, where there are strong gun laws.


Analysis: Guns and the law


Sandy Hook should, and must, be a tipping point for real action to bring this number down.


Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.


Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Piers Morgan.



Watch Piers Morgan Tonight weeknights 9 p.m. ET. For the latest from Piers Morgan click here.









Part of complete coverage on







December 20, 2012 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)



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December 20, 2012 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)



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LZ Granderson says allowing concealed weapons in places like schools and churches would just result in more tragedy, not less.







December 19, 2012 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)



William Bennett says having armed and trained people could help protect schools and other vulnerable places from gun violence








Get the latest opinion and analysis from CNN's columnists and contributors.







December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)



Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza says the vice president, who shepherded the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act through the Senate, is the right man to lead new gun control efforts.







December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)



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December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1406 GMT (2206 HKT)



Van Jones says artists have gotten together to expose the fiscal cliff as a crisis manufactured to justify cuts in essential programs.







December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)



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December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)



Lori Haas says our elected leaders have abandoned all sense of right and wrong despite epidemic deaths from guns.







December 18, 2012 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)



Edward Mulvey says we cannot tell which one of the thousands and thousands of young men who are quiet or withdrawn will be a killer.







December 18, 2012 -- Updated 1757 GMT (0157 HKT)



Deepak Chopra says if we stay glued to the media and relive Newtown over and over in our minds, we work against the healing process.







December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)



Peter Bergen says gun violence claims proportionately more civilian lives in some U.S. cities than the civilian toll of the Afghan war.

















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