"Cliff" concerns give way to earnings focus

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors' "fiscal cliff" worries are likely to give way to more fundamental concerns, like earnings, as fourth-quarter reports get under way next week.


Financial results, which begin after the market closes on Tuesday with aluminum company Alcoa , are expected to be only slightly better than the third-quarter's lackluster results. As a warning sign, analyst current estimates are down sharply from what they were in October.


That could set stocks up for more volatility following a week of sharp gains that put the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.spx> on Friday at the highest close since December 31, 2007. The index also registered its biggest weekly percentage gain in more than a year.


Based on a Reuters analysis, Europe ranks among the chief concerns cited by companies that warned on fourth-quarter results. Uncertainty about the region and its weak economic outlook were cited by more than half of the 25 largest S&P 500 companies that issued warnings.


In the most recent earnings conference calls, macroeconomic worries were cited by 10 companies while the U.S. "fiscal cliff" was cited by at least nine as reasons for their earnings warnings.


"The number of things that could go wrong isn't so high, but the magnitude of how wrong they could go is what's worrisome," said Kurt Winters, senior portfolio manager for Whitebox Mutual Funds in Minneapolis.


Negative-to-positive guidance by S&P 500 companies for the fourth quarter was 3.6 to 1, the second worst since the third quarter of 2001, according to Thomson Reuters data.


U.S. lawmakers narrowly averted the "fiscal cliff" by coming to a last-minute agreement on a bill to avoid steep tax hikes this weeks -- driving the rally in stocks -- but the battle over further spending cuts is expected to resume in two months.


Investors also have seen a revival of worries about Europe's sovereign debt problems, with Moody's in November downgrading France's credit rating and debt crises looming for Spain and other countries.


"You have a recession in Europe as a base case. Europe is still the biggest trading partner with a lot of U.S. companies, and it's still a big chunk of global capital spending," said Adam Parker, chief U.S. equity strategist at Morgan Stanley in New York.


Among companies citing worries about Europe was eBay , whose chief financial officer, Bob Swan, spoke of "macro pressures from Europe" in the company's October earnings conference call.


REVENUE WORRIES


One of the biggest worries voiced about earnings has been whether companies will be able to continue to boost profit growth despite relatively weak revenue growth.


S&P 500 revenue fell 0.8 percent in the third quarter for the first decline since the third quarter of 2009, Thomson Reuters data showed. Earnings growth for the quarter was a paltry 0.1 percent after briefly dipping into negative territory.


On top of that, just 40 percent of S&P 500 companies beat revenue expectations in the third quarter, while 64.2 percent beat earnings estimates, the Thomson Reuters data showed.


For the fourth quarter, estimates are slightly better but are well off estimates for the quarter from just a few months earlier. S&P 500 earnings are expected to have risen 2.8 percent while revenue is expected to have gone up 1.9 percent.


Back in October, earnings growth for the fourth quarter was forecast up 9.9 percent.


In spite of the cautious outlooks, some analysts still see a good chance for earnings beats this reporting period.


"The thinking is you need top line growth for earnings to continue to expand, and we've seen the market defy that," said Mike Jackson, founder of Denver-based investment firm T3 Equity Labs.


Based on his analysis, energy, industrials and consumer discretionary are the S&P sectors most likely to beat earnings expectations in the upcoming season, while consumer staples, materials and utilities are the least likely to beat, Jackson said.


Sounding a positive note on Friday, drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co said it expects profit in 2013 to increase by more than Wall Street had been forecasting, primarily due to cost controls and improved productivity.


(Reporting By Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Kenneth Barry)



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Saban: Alabama players must put aside 'clutter'


MIAMI (AP) — Two days after team leaders held a players-only meeting, Alabama coach Nick Saban says the Crimson Tide's performance in Monday's BCS championship against Notre Dame will show a lot about whether his players have put aside the "clutter" that comes with their success.


"You fight against human nature a little bit," Saban said Saturday at media day for the title game.


In the past, Saban has taken issue with the phrase "defending champions." He delivered a message of moving on to his players two days after winning last season's BCS title.


He said the gist was: "You guys are not the national champions."


"Other than making you a target," he said, "it doesn't do anything for you."


Alabama is still the target.


Tide players held the meeting because they wanted their teammates to get more focused in practice. Two freshmen linebackers — who aren't part of the playing rotation — were sent home Friday for curfew violations.


No. 2 Alabama is favored by more than a touchdown, which is OK with Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly.


"Somebody's got to be an underdog," Kelly said during his turn at the podium. "Alabama's got the belt; they deserve to have the belt, and we've got to try to take it from them."


The Tide is seeking its third national title in four years. No. 1 Notre Dame has its own impressive collection but none since 1988.


Kelly hopes to reach that same level Saban has achieved, ensuring that this isn't a one-time opportunity.


"Your program is defined in consistency, and Alabama is that model," he said. "I concede to that. It's where we want to be. We want to be back here next year.


"There's been some commentators that talk about, 'Is Notre Dame for real?' Well, for me, we're for real because we're here. We've won all our games."


Kelly said he gets the vibe that his team is ready for Monday night. He says he doesn't want the "outside, perceived pressure to weigh heavily" on players.


Alabama players have been here and done this, including the hype and sometimes off-the-wall questions of what amounts to a downsized version of the Super Bowl media day.


"I mean, I think it's the media that makes the game so much bigger," Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said "Me personally, I think it's just another game.


"Yeah, you're playing for a national championship, but it's another football game. You know, the field is still 53 yards wide, 100 yards long. Still got to put the ball in the end zone to win the game. I don't really pay too much attention to the title of the game, I guess."


In other words, the label "BCS championship" is just more clutter.


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Laser Folds Tiny Origami for US Army






Lasers could help fire weapons or set off explosive warheads for the U.S. Army in the near future. That possibility comes from a lab demonstration of how a simple, handheld laser can fold tiny metallic structures in a style that mimics Japanese origami.


The demonstration suggests that similar systems could produce tiny grippers and switches that would act as mechanical components in small devices. The components could be used to detonate explosive or propellant material, attach identification transponder tags to clothing, or even enable a new generation of extremely tiny robots or electronic devices.






“We are enabling true microsystems, where all of the energy and functions are self-contained in a millimeter- or smaller-sized package,” said Christopher Morris, a researcher focused on micro-materials and devices at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.


Army researchers became interested in the concept after seeing work that Johns Hopkins University had done in making micro devices for performing surgery. But the Army took the method a step farther by creating millimeter-sized structures that could be triggered by low-power lasers or even LED lighting.


The tiny structures act as mechanical hinges capable of folding along certain “stress” lines built into the layered metal. When a laser shines onto the structure, its energy softens a polymer “trigger” that normally prevents the hinges from folding.


A handheld laser operating on “eye-safe” levels could trigger the folding action from up to 3 feet away during testing detailed in the journal Applied Physics Letters and highlighted in the journal Nature Photonics.


Folding time ranged from 67 milliseconds to 21 seconds, depending on the wavelength and intensity of laser light, but larger structures required several minutes. The Army Research Laboratory takes about 20 hours to make a sheet of the millimeter-sized folding structures.


“Our hope is that new uses will spur from this basic scientific exploration of novel fabrication and self- assembly of materials, and will help future soldiers in ways they may not even see,” Morris said.


This story was provided by TechNewsDaily, sister site to LiveScience. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily, or on Facebook.


Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Science News Headlines – Yahoo! News





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Storm over Depardieu's 'pathetic' move






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has bestowed Russian citizenship on actor Gérard Depardieu

  • For Depardieu, a public war of words erupted, with many in France disgusted by his move

  • Depardieu more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit, says Agnes Poirier

  • Majority of French people disapprove of his action but can't help loving him, she adds




Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, U.S., France, Italy. Follow her on Twitter.


Paris (CNN) -- Since the revelation on the front page of daily newspaper Libération, on December 11, with a particularly vicious editorial talking about France's national treasure as a "former genius actor," Gérard Depardieu's departure to Belgium, where he bought a property just a mile from the French border, has deeply divided and saddened France. Even more so since, as we have learnt this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has bestowed the actor Russian citizenship.


Back in mid-December, the French media operated along political lines: the left-wing press such as Libération couldn't find strong enough words to describe Depardieu's "desertion" while right-wing publications such as Le Figaro, slightly uneasy at the news, preferred to focus on President François Hollande's punishing taxes which allegedly drove throngs of millionaires to seek tax asylum in more fiscally lenient countries such as Belgium or Britain. Le Figaro stopped short of passing moral judgement though. Others like satirical weekly Charlie hebdo, preferred irony. Its cover featured a cartoon of the rather rotund-looking Depardieu in front of a Belgian flag with the headline: "Can Belgium take the world's entire load of cholesterol?" Ouch.


Quickly though, it became quite clear that Depardieu was not treated in the same way as other famous French tax exiles. French actor Alain Delon is a Swiss resident as is crooner-rocker Johnny Halliday, and many other French stars and sportsmen ensure they reside for under six months in France in order to escape being taxed here on their income and capital. Their move has hardly ever been commented on. And they certainly never had to suffer the same infamy.



Agnes Poirier

Agnes Poirier



For Depardieu, a public war of words erupted. It started with the French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, and many members of his government, showing their disdain, and talking of Depardieu's "pathetic move." In response the outraged actor penned an open letter to the French PM in which he threatened to give back his French passport.


The backlash was not over. Fellow thespian Phillipe Torreton fired the first salvo against Depardieu in an open letter published in Libération, insulting both Depardieu's protruding physique and lack of patriotism: "So you're leaving the ship France in the middle of a storm? What did you expect, Gérard? You thought we would approve? You expected a medal, an academy award from the economy ministry? (...)We'll get by without you." French actress Catherine Deneuve felt she had to step in to defend Depardieu. In another open letter published by Libération, she evoked the darkest hours of the French revolution. Before flying to Rome to celebrate the New Year, Depardieu gave an interview to Le Monde in which he seemed to be joking about having asked Putin for Russian citizenship. Except, it wasn't a joke.


In truth, French people have felt touched to their core by Depardieu's gesture. He, more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit. He has been Cyrano, he has been Danton; he, better than most, on screen and off, stands for what it means to be French: passionate, sensitive, theatrical, and grandiose. Ambiguous too, and weak in front of temptations and pleasures.



In truth, French people have felt touched to their core by Depardieu's gesture. He, more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit
Hugh Miles



For more than two weeks now, #Depardieu has been trending on French Twitter. Surveys have showed France's dilemma: half the French people understand him but there are as many who think that paying one's taxes is a national duty. In other words, a majority of French people disapprove of his action but can't help loving the man.


Putin's move in granting the actor Russian citizenship has exacerbated things. And first of all, it is a blow to Hollande who, it was revealed, had a phone conversation with Depardieu on New Year's Day. The Elysées Palace refused to communicate on the men's exchange. A friend of the actor declared that Depardieu complained about being so reviled by the press and that he was leaving, no matter what.


If, in their hearts, the French don't quite believe Depardieu might one day settle in Moscow and abandon them, they feel deeply saddened by the whole saga. However, with France's former sex symbol Brigitte Bardot declaring that she too might ask Putin for Russian citizenship to protest against the fate of zoo elephants in Lyon, it looks as if the French may prefer to laugh the whole thing off. Proof of this: the last trend on French Twitter is #IWantRussianCitizenship.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Agnes Poirier.






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Jail escapee appears in court, is ordered held without bond

Chicago Tribune reporter Jason Meisner on the recent arrest of Kenneth Conley, a convicted bank robber who escaped from federal jail in December. (Posted on: Jan. 4, 2013.)









Escaped bank robber Kenneth Conley is being held in custody without bond after appearing in federal court this morning.


Conley, who was wheeled into court in a wheelchair, waived his right to a bond hearing and was ordered by U.S. District Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan to remain in federal custody without bond. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 17 in front of Judge Finnegan.


The maximum penalty for escape is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to federal officials. The maximum penalty for bank robbery is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.








The spectacular jailbreak — the first at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in almost 30 years — embarrassed federal authorities and seemed to be meticulously planned. Conley, 38, and Joseph "Jose" Banks, 37, rappelled to freedom using a rope fashioned from bedsheets. But like Banks, who was arrested two days after the escape in the North Side neighborhood where he was raised, Conley had no apparent plan for life on the run and was found holed up in an area where he had known ties.


Palos Hills police said a maintenance worker at a building in the 10200 block of South 86th Terrace called police about 3:30 p.m. to report the "suspicious person" who might be sleeping at the premises. Officers arrived to find a man walking down the street in an overcoat and pretending to use a cane. He appeared to be trying to look older than his actual age, police said.


"Our officers stopped to talk to him and he said he was just visiting," Deputy Chief James Boie told the Tribune. "He gave them a phony name, and while they're trying to run the information, he got wise that they were going to figure it out, and he pushed one of the officers down and took off running."


Boie said two additional officers responding to the scene caught Conley about a block away as he was trying to force his way into the Scenic Tree apartment complex, which is across the street from the police headquarters. He was wrestled down but did not offer any other resistance. Conley and one officer were taken to Palos Community Hospital for observation, he said.


Police found a BB pistol in Conley's pocket. He had no cash or other weapons, Boie said.


According to court records, Conley once lived in an apartment near the scene of his arrest. Boie said Conley was known to Palos Hills police because he'd had multiple resisting and obstructing arrests in 2004.


Conley, 38, was awaiting sentencing for a single bank holdup when authorities said he and Banks removed a cinder block from their cell wall and scaled down about 15 stories of the sheer wall of the jail, located at 71 W. Van Buren Street, early on Dec. 18.


The cellmates were last accounted for during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. the next day, jail employees arriving for work saw the bedsheets dangling from a hole in the wall down the south side of the facade.


The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the two wearing light-colored clothing hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue about 2:40 a.m. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.


A high-ranking employee in the facility told the Tribune last month that video surveillance had captured the men making their descent but that the guard who was supposed to be watching the video monitors for suspicious activity might have been called away on other duties.


In the hours after they were discovered missing, Conley and Banks were traced to the southwest suburbs where Conley's family lives.


A brother of Conley's who asked that his name not be printed told the Tribune last month that a short time after the escape, Conley and Banks arrived at the family home in Tinley Park pounding on the door. Conley came in looking frazzled, claiming he had been freed on bond, the brother said. He said their mother gave him a winter coat and turned him away.


Banks was arrested Dec. 20 after an informant led authorities to the home of a boyhood friend of Banks' in the 2300 block of North Bosworth Avenue, less than five miles from the jail.


Meanwhile, Conley tasted two more weeks of freedom but did not get much farther. His arrest was just over 21 miles from the downtown jail.


According to court records, Conley has a long criminal history. He has been convicted in Cook County of offenses ranging from retail theft to weapons violations and was sentenced to eight years in prison for an armed robbery in 1996. He also was sentenced to six years in prison in San Diego County for petty theft with a prior conviction, according to California records.


Less than a year after his parole in 2010, Conley robbed a bank in suburban Homewood of less than $4,000 cash, the heist that landed him in the federal lockup.


Conley's mother, Sandra, answered the phone at her Tinley Park home Friday and said she had heard of her son's arrest but had no details or comment.


"I'm just glad it's over. That's my only comment," she said.


asweeney@tribune.com


Twitter: @Annie1221





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Chavez swearing-in can be delayed: Venezuelan VP


CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez's formal swearing-in for a new six-year term scheduled for January 10 can be postponed if he is unable to attend due to his battle to recover from cancer surgery, Venezuela's vice president said on Friday.


Nicolas Maduro's comments were the clearest indication yet that the Venezuelan government is preparing to delay the swearing-in while avoiding naming a replacement for Chavez or calling a new election in the South American OPEC nation.


In power since 1999, the 58-year-old socialist leader has not been seen in public for more than three weeks. Allies say he is in delicate condition after a fourth operation in two years for an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area.


The political opposition argues that Chavez's presence on January 10 in Cuba - where there are rumors he may be dying - is tantamount to the president's stepping down.


But Maduro, waving a copy of the constitution during an interview with state TV, said there was no problem if Chavez was sworn in at a later date by the nation's top court.


"The interpretation being given is that the 2013-2019 constitutional period starts on January 10. In the case of President Chavez, he is a re-elected president and continues in his functions," he said.


"The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved in the Supreme Court at the time the court deems appropriate in coordination with the head of state."


In the increasing "Kremlinology"-style analysis of Venezuela's extraordinary political situation, that could be interpreted in different ways: that Maduro and other allies trust Chavez will recover eventually, or that they are buying time to cement succession plans before going into an election.


Despite his serious medical condition, there was no reason to declare Chavez's "complete absence" from office, Maduro said. Such a declaration would trigger a new vote within 30 days, according to Venezuela's charter.


RECOVERY POSSIBLE?


Chavez was conscious and fighting to recover, said Maduro, who traveled to Havana to see his boss this week.


"We will have the Commander well again," he said.


Maduro, 50, whom Chavez named as his preferred successor should he be forced to leave office, said Venezuela's opposition had no right to go against the will of the people as expressed in the October 7 vote to re-elect the president.


"The president right now is president ... Don't mess with the people. Respect democracy."


Despite insisting Chavez remains president and there is hope for recovery, the government has acknowledged the gravity of his condition, saying he is having trouble breathing due to a "severe" respiratory infection.


Social networks are abuzz with rumors he is on life support or facing uncontrollable metastasis of his cancer.


Chavez's abrupt exit from the political scene would be a huge shock for Venezuela. His oil-financed socialism has made him a hero to the poor, while critics call him a dictator seeking to impose Cuban-style communism on Venezuelans.


Should Chavez leave office, a new election is likely to pitch former bus driver and union activist Maduro against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state.


Capriles lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, but won an impressive 44 percent of the vote. Though past polls have shown him to be more popular than all of Chavez's allies, the equation is now different given Maduro has received the president's personal blessing - a factor likely to fire up Chavez's fanatical supporters.


His condition is being watched closely by Latin American allies that have benefited from his help, as well as investors attracted by Venezuela's lucrative and widely traded debt.


"The odds are growing that the country will soon undergo a possibly tumultuous transition," the U.S.-based think tank Stratfor said this week.


(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga; editing by Christopher Wilson)



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Wall Street inches up after data; Apple extends fall

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks edged higher on Friday and the S&P 500 was on track for its biggest weekly gain in over a year after a jobs report showed employers kept the pace of hiring steady in December.


The S&P 500 index's weekly gain would be its largest since December 2011. The index recorded the largest daily gain in more than a year on Wednesday following the "fiscal cliff" agreement.


Shares of Apple Inc dropped 2.3 percent to $529.62, continuing its downward path of recent months and pressuring the Nasdaq.


Adding to concerns about the iPhone maker's ability to produce more innovative products, rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd is expected to widen its lead over Apple in global smartphone sales this year with growth of 35 percent. Market researcher Strategy Analytics said Samsung had a broad product lineup.


The market improved modestly after data from the Institute for Supply Management, which showed the U.S. service sector grew at its fastest pace in 10 months in December, boosted by a rise in new orders.


"The jobs number today was somewhat benign. It was pretty close to what estimates were, so there wasn't much to draw out volatility," said Gordon Charlop, managing director at Rosenblatt Securities in New York.


"I get the sense we're just sort of going to digest the events of earlier this week," he said, referring to the fiscal cliff deal.


The Labor Department said payrolls outside the farming sector grew by 155,000 jobs last month, slightly below November's level. Gains in employment were distributed broadly throughout the economy, from manufacturing and construction to healthcare.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 19.04 points, or 0.14 percent, at 13,410.40. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 4.47 points, or 0.31 percent, at 1,463.84. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 4.06 points, or 0.13 percent, at 3,104.62.


Eli Lilly and Co stock rose 3.7 percent to $51.57 after the pharmaceuticals maker said it expects its 2013 earnings to increase to $3.75 to $3.90 per share, excluding items, from $3.30 to $3.40 per share in 2012.


Shares of Mosaic Co gained 2.7 percent to $58.29. Excluding items, the fertilizer producer's quarterly earnings beat analysts' expectations, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. [ID:nL4N0A93GG]


The Mosaic move helped boost the S&P Materials index <.gspm> to 0.8 percent, the biggest gainer of the major sector indexes.


The rise in payrolls shown by the jobs data did not make a dent in the still-high U.S. unemployment rate, but it calmed fears about the possibility of the U.S. Federal Reserve ending its highly stimulative monetary policy.


Concerns about the duration of the Fed's stimulus program prompted a pull-back from the market Thursday after a rally.


Minutes from the Fed's December policy meeting, released Thursday, showed Fed officials were increasingly worried about the risks of asset purchases to financial markets, though they looked set to continue with the open-ended stimulus program for now.


"I think you saw that in the reaction yesterday," said Michael James, senior trader at Wedbush Morgan in Los Angeles, adding that he thinks the equity markets will not be dragged further by the Fed minutes.


(Additional reporting by Angela Moon; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Nick Zieminski and Kenneth Barry)



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Chiefs, GM Pioli part ways after 4 seasons in KC


KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Scott Pioli is out as general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, who have been negotiating the past two days with Andy Reid to become their next coach.


Pioli and the team "mutually parted ways," the Chiefs said in a statement Friday. The decision came after four tumultuous seasons marked by poor draft choices, ineffective free-agent moves, failed coaching hires and a growing fan rebellion.


"I truly apologize for not getting the job done," Pioli said.


The Chiefs fired coach Romeo Crennel on Monday after finishing 2-14, matching the worst record in their 53-year history. Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said other changes could be made, and indicated that Pioli's future could be determined by their next coach.


A person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press the team is nearing a deal with Reid, who was fired after 14 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing. It is believed that Reid would prefer to work with his own general manager.


"After several productive conversations, we made the difficult decision to part ways with Scott Pioli and allow him to pursue other opportunities," Hunt said in a statement Friday.


"This was a difficult decision for Scott as well," Hunt said. "He has a great deal of appreciation for the history of this franchise, for our players, coaches and employees, and especially our great fans."


Kansas City will have the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and with five players voted to the Pro Bowl, there are certainly pieces in place for the Chiefs to make rapid improvement.


But most of those Pro Bowl players were drafted by Pioli's predecessor, Carl Peterson. The former Patriots executive struggled to find impact talent, particularly at quarterback, while cycling through coaches and fostering a climate of dread within the entire organization.


Numerous longtime staff members were fired upon Pioli's arrival, and his inability to connect with fans resulted in unrest unlike anything the franchise has known. Some of them even paid for banners to be towed behind planes before home games asking that he be fired.


Those fans finally got their wish.


The biggest reason ultimately wasn't the banners and posters, but by the performance of the Chiefs. And that was a reflection of the roster Pioli assembled, one that looked good on paper but not on the field.


Things were no better away from the field, either.


On Dec. 1, linebacker Jovan Belcher shot the mother of his 3-month-old daughter, Kasandra Perkins, at a home not far from Arrowhead Stadium. He then drove to the team's practice facility and was confronted by Pioli, Crennel and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs.


After thanking the three of them for giving him a chance in the NFL, Belcher turned around in the parking lot, kneeled down and shot himself in the head.


Pioli hasn't spoken publicly since then but issued a statement Friday in which he thanked the organization for giving him an opportunity to be its GM.


"The bottom line is that I did not accomplish all of what I set out to do," Pioli said. "To the Hunt family — to the great fans of the Kansas City Chiefs — to the players, all employees and alumni, I truly apologize for not getting the job done."


Pioli often spoke of putting together "the right 53," but he routinely failed to do so.


His biggest move upon being hired was trading for Patriots backup Matt Cassel and then giving him a $63 million, six-year deal. Cassel went to the Pro Bowl in 2010, when the Chiefs won a surprising AFC West title, but he struggled so mightily that he was benched this season.


Many of Pioli's moves in free agency also backfired.


Tight end Kevin Boss sustained a season-ending head injury in Week 2, running back Peyton Hillis was a shadow of his former self, right tackle Eric Winston got into a messy situation by calling out Chiefs fans during an early season loss, and cornerback Stanford Routt was cut under mysterious circumstances despite signing an $18 million, three-year contract.


One of his biggest shortcomings was in the draft.


He wasted the third overall pick in 2009 on defensive end Tyson Jackson, who has struggled to become an every-down player. The only other player who has made a contribution from Pioli's first draft has been kicker Ryan Succop, their seventh-round selection.


Pioli fared better in 2010, when he nabbed Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry in the first round, but the past two years have been a disappointment. Wide receiver Jon Baldwin, his first-round pick in 2011, has barely made an impact, and defensive tackle Dontari Poe — the 11th overall pick last April — failed to make the kind of impression the Chiefs had hoped.


Pioli didn't fare much better when it came to coaches.


He fired Herm Edwards soon after he was hired and chose Todd Haley as the replacement, but their relationship was strained from the start. Haley was fired last December and Crennel made the interim coach, and then Pioli made the move permanent a few weeks after the season ended.


While beloved and respected by his players, Crennel struggled in his second stint as a head coach, and was dismissed after a 2-14 finish — only the third time in team history the Chiefs failed to win at least three games in a season.


___


Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL


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Beam Me Up! William Shatner Tweets With Astronaut in Space






Move over Scotty, Captain Kirk has a new favorite engineer. Actor William Shatner, the Canadian actor who portrayed the iconic captain of the Starship Enterprise on TV’s “Star Trek” hailed Canada’s soon-to-be first space station commander on Twitter to find out the latest news from orbit.


Shatner wrote to Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, who posts Twitter updates as @Cmdr_Hadfield, Thursday (Jan. 3) using his own Twitter handle @WilliamShatner.






“@Cmdr_Hadfield Are you tweeting from space? MBB,” Shatner wrote, signing off with his abbreviation of “My Best, Bill.” 


It did not take long for Hadfield, a mechanical engineer and retired colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces, to beam a reply down from the International Space Station. 


“@WilliamShatner Yes, Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface,” the astronaut wrote.


Hadfield launched into orbit in December aboard a Russian rocket to kick off a months-long mission to the International Space Station. He currently serves as a flight engineer on the space station‘s six-man Expedition 34 crew. In March, he will take charge of the station’s Expedition 35 mission increment, making him Canada’s first space commander.


Officials with the Canadian Space Agency (on Twitter as @csa_asc) also used the social media website to confirm to Shatner that Hadfield was, in fact, using Twitter to post updates and photos from space. 


“I’m very impressed!” Shatner wrote back.


Shatner and Hadfield actually have met before, at least in photo form. The actor posed with a tiny paper version of the astronaut as part of a public outreach campaign for Hadfield’s mission.


“The last time @WilliamShatner and I met was in another dimension – 2D,” Hadfield wrote as he posted the photo.


CSA officials even invited Shatner for a visit, offering him a chance to speak with Hadfield from space. The agency’s headquarters, the John H. Chapman Space Center, is located in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. 


“I can’t make any promises but I will see what I can do. MBB,” Shatner wrote.


Astronauts on the International Space Station have used Twitter as a way to post mission updates and photos from space since 2009, when NASA astronaut Mike Massimino became the first spaceflyer to use Twitter from space during the last space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. As of today, Hadfield has 61,432 followers on his Twitter account, which he used to unveil the first original song recorded in space (his tune “Jewel in the Night”) last week.


Hadfield is due to return to Earth in mid-May.


You can follow Chris Hadfield on Twitter here, @Cmdr_Hadfield, and Shatner here, @WilliamShatner.


You can follow SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalikFollow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.


Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Myanmar: Evolution, not revolution




Tourists walk around the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in April. The tourism industry is set for expansion.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Myanmar is undergoing incremental change, welcomed by all, says Parag Khanna

  • But he says people still tread lightly, careful not to overstep or demand too much

  • Myanmar has survived succession of natural and man-made ravages, Khanna adds

  • With sanctions lifted, foreign investment is now pouring in from Western nations




Editor's note: Parag Khanna is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. His books include "The Second World," "How to Run the World," and "Hybrid Reality."


Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- Call it a case for evolution instead of revolution. While the Arab world continues in the throes of violence and uncertainty, Myanmar is undergoing incremental change -- and almost everyone seems to want it that way.


The government is lightening up: holding elections, freeing political prisoners, abolishing censorship, legalizing protests, opening to investment and tourists and welcoming back exiles. But the people still tread lightly, careful not to overstep or demand too much. Still, the consensus is clear: Change in Myanmar is "irreversible."


Read more: Aung San Suu Kyi and the power of unity


As the British Raj's jungle frontier, Burma was a key Asian battleground resisting the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II. As with many post-colonial countries, the euphoria of independence and democracy in 1948 gave way in just over a decade to the 1962 coup in which General Ne Win nationalized the economy and abolished most institutions except the army.



Parag Khanna

Parag Khanna



Non-alignment gave way to isolationism. Like Syria or Uzbekistan, Myanmar became an ancient Silk Road passageway that almost voluntarily choked itself off, choosing the unique path of a Buddhist state conducting genocide, slavery, and human trafficking.


Watch: Myanmar in grip of economic revolution


The military junta began its increasingly cozy rapproachment with Deng Xiaoping's China in the 1970s, just as China was opening to the world, and used cash from its Golden Triangle drug-running operations to pay for Chinese weapons.


Mass protests, crackdowns and another coup in 1988 led to a rebranding of the junta as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the country's official renaming as the Union of Myanmar.


Terrorized, starving and homeless: Myanmar's Rohingya still forgotten


The 1990 elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a majority of the seats, were annulled by the SLORC, which continued to rule until 2011 when it was formally disbanded. Most international sanctions on Myanmar have now been lifted.






Read more: Myanmar: Is now a good time to go?


In just the past few years, Myanmar has survived a succession of natural and man-made ravages, from the brutal crackdown on the Saffron Revolution of 2007 (led by Buddhist monks but more widely supported in protest against rising fuel prices and economic mismanagement), to Cyclone Nargis (which killed an estimated 200,000 people in 2008) to civil wars between the government's army and ethnic groups such as the Kachin in the north and Shan and Karen in the east, and communal violence between the Muslim Rohingya (ethnic Bengalis) and Buddhist Rakhine in the west.


There are still approximately 150,000 Karen refugees in Thailand (and over 300,000 total refugees on the Thai-Burmese border) and more than 100,000 displaced Rohinya living in camps in Sittwe. So difficult is holding Myanmar together that even Aung San Suu Kyi, who helps lead the national reconciliation process, ironically advocated the use of the army (which kept her under house arrest for almost two decades) to pacify the rebellions.


Though sectarian conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine underscores the Myanmar's tenuous search for national unity, the genuine efforts at religious pluralism are reminiscent of neighboring India: Every religion is officially recognized, and days are given off for observance. Surrounding Yangon's downtown City Hall is not only the giant Sule Pagoda but also a mosque, synagogue, church and Jain temple. The roundabout is therefore a symbol of the country's diversity -- but also the place where protesters flock when the government doesn't live up to promises.


Q&A: What's behind sectarian violence in Myanmar?


Scarred from decades of oppressive and ideological rule and still beset by conflict, it is therefore against all odds that Myanmar would become the most talked about frontier market of the moment, a top Christmas holiday destination and a case study in democratic transitions. Myanmar's political scene is now a vibrant but cacophonous discourse involving the still-powerful army; upstart parliament; repatriated civilian advisers; flourishing civil society, including human rights groups, ambitious business community, the Buddhist religious community, and a feisty media (especially online).


The parliament is pushing for accountability in telecom and energy contracts, and its speaker, Shwe Mann, is already maneuvering to challenge the chairman of his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) -- current president Thein Sein -- in the 2015 elections.


In the meantime, however, the establishment in Yangon and the new capital of Napyidaw need to focus much more on building capacity. Thein Sein, who traded in his uniform for indigenous attire in 2011, has reshuffled the Cabinet to make room for functional experts in the energy and economic portfolios. He's even spearheaded an anti-corruption drive, admitting recently that Myanmar's "governance falls well below international standards." By many accounts he is also very open to advice on investment and other reforms.


He will need it, as Myanmar faces crucial tests of its international credibility in the coming years. In 2013, Myanmar will play host to the World Economic Forum (WEF) as well as the Southeast Asian Games. In 2014 it will chair the ASEAN regional group, and in 2015 it is expected to enter a new ASEAN Free Trade Area.


The military's power is still pervasive, placing it somewhere on the spectrum between Indonesia, where military influence has been rolled back, and Pakistan, where the military still dominates. On the streets, it's often difficult to know who is in charge.


One numerological fetish led to the driving side being unilaterally changed, making Myanmar the rare place where the steering wheel is (mostly) on the right, and cars drive (mostly) on the right. At least a dozen official and private newspapers (though private daily papers are not allowed yet) are on offer from meandering street hawkers, while you inch through Yangon's increasingly dense daily traffic jams.


At this time of year, visitors to Burma enjoy crisp, smoky morning air and dry, starry nights. Yangon is undergoing a construction boom, with faded colonial embassies turned into bustling banks, the national independence column being refurbished and redesigned with a park, and tycoons building columned mansions near downtown -- and seeking Buddhist blessings by pledging lavish donations for the construction of even more monasteries and pagodas.


By 2020, the population of Yangon could easily double from the current 5 million, at which point it may look like a mix of Calcutta and Kuala Lumpur.


Thant Myint-U, the grandson of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant and noted historian of modern Burma, now wears several hats related to ethnic reconciliation, foreign donor trust funds and urban conservation. He says that as foreign aid flows grow from trickles into a flood, they have to be systematically focused on sustainable employment creation and infrastructure. USAID has pledged to spend more than $150 million in Myanmar in the next three years.



Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against China's commercial and strategic encroachment
Parag Khanna



Outside of Yangon, the pace of Burmese society slows to a timeless pace -- as do Internet connections. On village roads, cycle rickshaws and monks with parasols amble by fruit vendors and car part stalls. Whether at the Dhammayazika Pagoda in Bagan or Mandalay Hill in that city, locals enjoy watching sunrises and sunsets as much as tourists.


Traveling around Myanmar, one observes the paradox of a country that has massive potential yet still needs just about everything. Yangon's vegetable market is a maze of tented alleys overflowing with cabbage, pineapples, eggplant and flowers, but they are still transported by wheelbarrows and bicycles. Ox-drawn ploughs still power farming in much of the country, meaning agricultural output of rice, beans and other staples could grow immensely through mechanization.


Similarly, the British-era light-rail loop circling Yangon takes about three hours to ride once around, with no linking bus services into downtown. But with cars already clogging the city, a major transport overhaul is essential. The communications sector actually needs to be re-invented. At present, the country's Internet and mobile phone penetration are only just growing; both are still governed by India's 1886 Telegraph Act. Mobile penetration is only 3 million but could easily grow to 30 million (half the population) within the next couple of years, as the price of SIM cards come down (so far from $2,000 to about $200), and foreign telecoms are allowed in to provide data coverage.


With sanctions lifted, foreign investment is now pouring in from Western nations, in addition to the players who have been making inroads for years such as China, Thailand and Singapore. The paradox, however, is that Myanmar lacks the infrastructure (physical and institutional) to absorb all the investor interest.


Major nations have thus focused on special economic zones that they themselves effectively run. The way Japan has moved into Myanmar, one would think that its World War II imperialism has been forgotten. After their major bet on the Thilawa special economic zone south of Yangon, Japanese contractors have plans to deepen the Yangon River's estuary so that cargo ships can sail directly up to the city's shores and offload more containers of cars that are already being briskly snapped up at busy dealerships.


Besides natural gas and agriculture, everyone agrees that tourism will comprise an ever-larger share of the country's GDP. Especially with much of the country off-limits to foreigners due to security restrictions and the military's economic operations, tourists already clog all existing suitable hotels in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, meaning a massive upgrade is needed in the hospitality sector.


Annual tourist visits are climbing 25% annually to an estimated 400,000 for 2012. Daily flights arrive packed from around the region, with longer-haul routes beginning from as far afield as Istanbul and Doha.


Still, Myanmar is a traveler's dream come true. In Bagan, you can walk or take a sunrise jog around countless pagodas that feel like they haven't been touched in 800 years -- some actually haven't. There is also the sacred and enchanting Golden Rock; the pristine beaches of Ngwe Saung, which rival the best of Thailand and the Philippines; the temperate climate of Inle Lake; the Himalayan foothills near Putao in far northern Kachin state where one can trek; the rich dynastic history of Mandalay; and the languorous Irrawaddy River cruises that harken to George Orwell's "Burmese Days."


Yangon has a pleasant charm and gentle energy, with vast gardens and riverside walks, the grandeur of centuries-old monuments such as the Shwedegon Pagoda, a fast-growing cultural scene of art galleries and music performances, and a melting pot population of all Myanmar's tribes as well as industrious overseas Indians and Chinese, who make up 5% of the nation's population.


Mandalay in particular is where one feels the depth of China's demographic penetration into Myanmar, owing not only to recent decades of commercial expansion from gems trading to real estate but also centuries of seasonal migrations across the rugged natural border with Yunnan province. Some have begun to call the Shan region "Yunnan South."


The combination of the Saffron Revolution, civil strife, sanctions, its economic lag behind the rest of ASEAN, and the status of becoming a captive resource supplier to China all played crucial roles in Myanmar's opening. China has traditionally been a kingmaker in isolated and sanctioned countries and well-placed to capitalize on the infrastructural and extractive needs of emerging economies as well.


For China, Myanmar represents a crucial artery to evade the "Malacca trap" represented by its dependence on shipping transit through the Straits of Malacca. In 2011 China was still far and away the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, bringing in $5 billion (of a total of $9 billion) across their 2,000-kilometer (1250-mile)-long border. The massive ongoing investments include 63 hydropower projects, a 2,400-kilometer (1500-mile) Sittwe-to-Kunming oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal and a proposed gas pipeline to China's Yunnan beginning at Myanmar's Ramree Island -- not to mention an entire military outfitted with Chinese tanks, helicopters, boats and planes.


Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against its commercial and strategic encroachment. Even well-kept generals are fundamentally Burmese nationalists and awoke to the predicament of total economic and strategic dependence on China. The government has taken major steps to correct this excessive tilt, suspending a major hydroelectric dam project at Myitsone and re-evaluating Wanbao Mining company's giant copper mine concession near Monywa.


Myanmar is now deftly playing the same multi-alignment game mastered by countries such as Kazakhstan in trying to escape the Soviet-Russian sphere of influence: courting all sides and gaining whatever one can from multiple great powers and neighbors while giving up as little autonomy as possible.


India sees Myanmar as the crucial gateway for its "Look East" policy and is offering substantial investments in oil and gas as well as port construction and information technology; Europe has become a larger investor, especially Great Britain; Russia is being courted as a new arms supplier; Japan is viewing Myanmar as its new Thailand for automobile production; and of course, U.S. President Barack Obama visited in December, paving the way not only for greater U.S. investment but even for Myanmar to potentially participate in the Cobra Gold military exercises held annually with America's regional allies.


Obama was not only the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar but also the first to call it by that name, conceding ground in a long-running dispute. The administration hopes that North Korea, Asia's still frozen outcast, will learn the lessons from Myanmar's steady but determined opening.


But countries that are playing multi-alignment don't have to thaw domestically -- witness Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. Myanmar is simultaneously undergoing political liberalization and international rehabilitation -- a tricky and laudable feat for sure but not one North Korea is likely to emulate entirely. What the two do have in common, however, is the growing realization that having China as a neighbor is both a blessing and a curse.


During my visit to the "Genius Language School," where university students go for professional English tutoring, I asked the assembled round table whether they were happy that Obama came to visit and whether they considered America a friend. All giggled and chanted: "Yes."


Then I asked, "Are you afraid of China?" And the answer came in immediate, resounding unison: "Yes!"


Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter


Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Parag Khanna.






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Judge: No felony for dad in Facebook posting









A Cook County judge today reversed himself, reducing the conviction to a misdemeanor for a dad who posted a Facebook photo of his 22-month-old bound and gagged with tape.

Judge Lawrence Flood had convicted Andre Curry in November of aggravated domestic battery and aggravated battery, both felonies, and was scheduled to sentence him today when he did an abrupt about-face.


In reducing Curry’s conviction to misdemeanor domestic battery, the judge said that after reviewing the law, he found no intent to obstruct the child's breathing. He sentenced Curry to 18 months of probation and ordered him to take parenting classes.





Despite his change of heart, Flood said that Curry showed an extreme "lack of judgment."


"In your rush to show everyone how funny you were, you used...a helpless 22-month-old child who was completely dependent on you as a prop," Flood said. “This was not funny, OK? I want you to understand the gravity of your lack of judgment in this case."


Curry thanked the judge in a soft voice and apologized to his family.


"I'm sorry for everybody who’s been on the edge of their seats out there," he said. 


Curry, 22, had been free on bond since his felony conviction but had faced up to 7 years in prison before the judge changed his mind.


At trial, Flood had acquitted Curry of unlawful restraint but found him guilty of the two battery counts, saying in a brief ruling that by placing tape over the girl's mouth, he had obstructed her breathing for his own enjoyment.


"To use a child...as a toy or a prop in an odd attempt at humor is conduct of an insulting or provoking nature," Flood said at the time.


Curry told police he was playing with his daughter one night at their South Side home and used blue painter’s tape to bind her ankles and wrists and cover her mouth. He then snapped a photo and uploaded it on his Facebook page.


Across the top of the photo were the words: "This is wut happens wen my baby hits me back," according to prosecutors and police reports. The message was followed with a winking emoticon.


Family members have said that Curry is playful and the photograph was meant to be a joke.


But the image went viral on the Internet, prompting a flood of calls to police and state child-welfare authorities from Curry’s friends on Facebook and others who had seen it.


jmeisner@tribune.com





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Damascus blames "terrorists" for petrol station blast


BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria on Friday said a car bomb at a crowded petrol station in Damascus on Thursday night was set off by "terrorists", a term it uses for rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.


The bomb killed 11 people and wounded 40 at a station packed with Syrians queuing for fuel, which has become scarce in the 21-month insurgency against Assad, in the second petrol station attack in the capital this week, opposition activists said.


"Terrorists ... blew up an explosive device at Qassioun Petrol Station near Hamish Hospital in Barzeh, Damascus, martyring several civilians," state news agency SANA said.


The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war, the longest, bloodiest conflict born from uprisings across the Arab world in the past two years.


Dozens of people were incinerated in an air strike as they waited for fuel at another Damascus petrol station on Wednesday, according to opposition sources.


The semi-official al-Ikhbariya television station aired its own footage from Barzeh, indicating the attack struck a government-held area. Barzeh's residents include members of the Sunni Muslim majority and religious and ethnic minorities.


The rebels hold a crescent of suburbs on the southern and eastern edges of Damascus, which have come under bombardment by government forces. Rebel forces also seized territory in Syria's north and east during advances in the second half of 2012.


The war pits rebels, mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority, against a government supported by members of Assad's Shi'ite-derived Alawite sect and some members of other minorities who fear revenge if he falls. Assad's family has ruled for 42 years since his father seized power in a coup.


Fighting has forced 560,000 Syrians to flee to neighboring countries, according to the U.N.


Lebanon, a country which has so far tried to distance itself from the conflict next door for fear it will inflame sectarian tensions, approved a plan to start registering 170,000 Syrian refugees and ask international donors for $180 million in aid.


"The Lebanese state will register the refugees...and guarantee aid and protection for the actual refugees in Lebanon," Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said after a six-hour cabinet session on Thursday night.


Most Sunni-ruled Arab states, as well as the West and Turkey have called for Assad to step down. He is supported by Russia and Shi'ite Iran.


ARMY WITHDRAWAL?


A Lebanese citizen who crossed into Syria through a mountainous frontier region said the army appeared to have withdrawn from several border posts and villages in the area.


Rebels controlled a line of border towns and villages north of the capital Damascus, stretching about 40 km (25 miles) from Yabroud south to Rankus, said the man, who did not want to be named and visited Syria on Wednesday and Thursday.


Rebels in the area reported that some of Assad's forces have pulled back to defend the main north-south highway linking Syria's main cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, while others were sent to reinforce the northern approach to Damascus.


"The border is controlled by the Free Syrian Army rebels," he said on Friday, adding he had crossed through mountainous terrain, covered in parts by more than a meter of snow.


(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Editing by Jason Webb)



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Wall Street rises after post-cliff deal rally

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged up on Thursday, adding to Wall Street's biggest single-day rally in a year on Wednesday after a deal in Washington to avert the "fiscal cliff."


Investors were more wary than in the previous sessions as they turned their focus to upcoming battles in Congress, including likely bitter fights over spending cuts and raising the federal debt ceiling.


"I would be cautious of big moves going forward. There are still some clouds over the horizon, with the fiscal issue of the government. We don't know how they're going to pan out, but in all likelihood there's not going to be a calamity," said Jeff Meyerson, head of trading at Sunrise Securities in New York.


Wednesday's rally began 2013 with Wall Street's best performance in over a year after the House of Representatives passed a measure to avert the fiscal cliff, which could have caused a recession.


The S&P Energy index <.gspe> rose the most of the major sector indexes, at 0.52 percent, led in part by CONSOL Energy , which said it expects to sell more non-core assets in 2013. CONSOL was up 3.5 percent to $32.09.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 6.30 points, or 0.05 percent, at 13,418.85. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> rose 2.05 points, or 0.14 percent, at 1,464.47. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 5.12 points, or 0.16 percent, at 3,117.39.


Retailers were mixed on Thursday after releasing December sales reports in an uncertain economy.


Shares in U.S. retailer Costco Wholesale Corp rose 1.4 percent to $102.88 after the company reported a better-than-expected 9 percent rise in December sales at stores open at least a year, primarily boosted by an additional sales day in the reporting period.


Gap Inc stock rose nearly 2 percent to $31.99 following news that the retailer will buy women's fashion boutique Intermix Inc for $130 million to enter the luxury clothes market, the Wall Street Journal reported.


Family Dollar Stores Inc stock dropped 11.7 percent to $56.52 on the company's report of lower-than-expected quarterly profit as its emphasis on selling more everyday items like cigarettes and soft drinks put pressure on margins.


Hiring data did not boost equity prices despite showing U.S. private employers added more jobs than expected in December.


"The report now sets the stage, as we expect a strong non-farm payroll reading on Friday," said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co in New York


The government's broader monthly payrolls report, due on Friday, is expected to show the economy created 150,000 jobs compared with 146,000 in November, according to a Reuters poll. The U.S. unemployment rate is seen holding steady at 7.7 percent.


Another report on Thursday showed that the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, but year-end holidays likely distorted the picture of labor market conditions.


(Additional reporting by Angela Moon, Editing by Bernadette Baum and Kenneth Barry)



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NHL, union resume talks in hopes to save season


NEW YORK (AP) — After a long night of talks, the NHL and the union are returning to negotiations — just later than expected.


The sides were supposed to meet at the league office Thursday at 10 a.m. EST. That, however, did not happen. The Players Association said it was updating its members on negotiations.


Players and union staff began arriving at NHL headquarters a little before a 1 p.m., although union head Donald Fehr was not part of the group.


With the lockout in its 110th day, both sides understand the urgency to save a shortened season. They have moved closer to one another while swapping proposals, but key issues remain — pensions and salary cap, among them.


Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that the league told the union a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin Jan. 19. All games through Jan. 14 along with the All-Star game have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.


The sides met in small groups throughout the day Wednesday. They then held a full bargaining session with a federal mediator at night that lasted nearly five hours and didn't wrap up until about 1 a.m. Thursday.


The biggest detail to emerge from those talks was that Fehr is still the executive director of the players' association, which passed on its first chance to declare a disclaimer that would dissolve the union and turn it into a trade association.


Last month, players voted overwhelmingly to give its executive board the right to declare the disclaimer, but that permission expired at midnight Wednesday. The disclaimer would allow individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL. Fehr wouldn't address the issue, calling it an "internal matter."


"The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the players' association," Bettman said. "It's not that it gets filed anywhere with a court or the NLRB. When you disclaim interest as a union, you notify the other side. We have not been notified and it's never been discussed, so there has been no disclaimer."


The thought was that the union wouldn't take action Wednesday if it saw progress was being made. Neither side would characterize the talks or address what, if any, movement toward common ground was reached.


"There's been some progress but we're still apart on a number of issues," Bettman said. "As long as the process continues I am hopeful."


A deal can't be done without a resolution on pensions. Bettman called the pension plan a "very complicated issue." A small group meeting on the pension issue was held Wednesday morning before the players' association presented its offer.


"The number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed by people who carry the title actuary or pension lawyer are pretty numerous and it's pretty easy to get off track. That is something we understand is important to the players."


The union's proposal Wednesday makes four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted negotiations Thursday with a proposal. The league presented the players with a counteroffer Tuesday night in response to one the union made Monday.


Fehr believed an agreement on a players-funded pension had been reached before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn't the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.


The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal — the 2013-14 season — hasn't been established, and it is another point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million.


In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.


"We talk about lots of things and we even had some philosophical discussions about why particular issues were important to each of us," Bettman said. "That is part of the process."


The NHL proposed in its first offer Thursday that pension contributions come out of the players' share of revenues, and $50 million of the league's make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunding liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.


Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the union accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.


"As you might expect, the differences between us relate to the core economic issues which don't involve the share," Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which likely will be split 50-50.


The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.


Read More..

Mars Rover Mission Marks 9 Years on Red Planet






As the world rang in the Near Year this this week, NASA was looking forward to a big milestone of its own — nine years and counting on the surface of Mars for an overachieving Red Planet rover mission.


The golf-cart-size Spirit rover landed on Mars on Jan. 3, 2004, PST. Its twin, Opportunity, touched down at another Martian locale three weeks later, joining Spirit on a 90-day quest to search for signs of past water activity on the Red Planet. Together, the two robots make up the Mars Exploration Rover mission, the precursor to the huge Mars rover Curiosity, which arrived at the planet last August.






The two NASA robots found plenty of such evidence, helping scientists confirm that Mars — now a frigid and seemingly bone-dry place — was warmer and wetter billions of years ago. Spirit even stumbled onto an ancient hydrothermal system, where heat energy and liquid water may have created conditions capable of supporting life as we know it.


Both rovers kept on chugging long after their warranties expired. Spirit finally stopped communicating with Earth in March 2010 and was declared dead a year later. Opportunity is still going strong, exploring clay deposits on the rim of Mars’ Endeavour Crater. [Latest Mars Photos From Rovers Spirit & Opportunity]


Together, the two robots have covered 26.82 miles (43.16 kilometers) to date, with Opportunity racking up the lion’s share (22.02 miles, or 35.44 km). While Opportunity is showing some signs of its advanced age, such as an arthritic arm, the rover remains in good health and continues to return interesting data to its handlers back on Earth.


“Every day is a gift at this point,” rover mission principal investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, said last month at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. “We’re just going to push the rover, and push ourselves, as hard as we can.”


The nine-year anniversary may bring some attention back to Opportunity, which ceded the Mars rover spotlight to its car-size cousin Curiosity last summer.


The $ 2.5 billion Curiosity rover landed inside Mars’ huge Gale Crater on Aug. 5, 2012, on a mission to determine if the area has ever been capable of supporting microbial life. The 1-ton robot — which weighs five times as much as Spirit or Opportunity — has already discovered an ancient streambed where water likely flowed continuously for thousands of years long ago.


Curiosity’s surface mission was originally slated to last about two Earth years, but NASA officials recently announced that they would let the robot roam as long as it was scientifically viable. If the performance of Spirit and Opportunity are any guide, Curiosity could be roving for many years to come. 


Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook and Google+


Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Why U.S. lives under the shadow of 'W'




Julian Zelizer says former President George W. Bush's key tax and homeland security policies survive in the age of Obama




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Julian Zelizer: For all the criticism Bush got, two key policies have survived

  • He says fiscal cliff pact perpetuates nearly all of Bush's tax cuts

  • Obama administration has largely followed Bush's homeland security policy, he says

  • Zelizer: By squeezing revenues, Bush tax cuts will put pressure on spending




Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."


Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Somewhere in Texas, former President George W. Bush is smiling.


Although some Democrats are pleased that taxes will now go up on the wealthiest Americans, the recent deal to avert the fiscal cliff entrenches, rather than dismantles, one of Bush's signature legacies -- income tax cuts. Ninety-nine percent of American households were protected from tax increases, aside from the expiration of the reduced rate for the payroll tax.



Julian Zelizer

Julian Zelizer



In the final deal, Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to preserve most of the Bush tax cuts, including exemptions on the estate tax.


When Bush started his term in 2001, many of his critics dismissed him as a lightweight, the son of a former president who won office as result of his family's political fortune and a controversial decision by the Supreme Court on the 2000 election.



But what has become clear in hindsight, regardless of what one thinks of Bush and his politics, is that his administration left behind a record that has had a huge impact on American politics, a record that will not easily be dismantled by future presidents.


The twin pillars of Bush's record were counterterrorism policies and tax cuts. During his first term, it became clear that Obama would not dismantle most of the homeland security apparatus put into place by his predecessor. Despite a campaign in 2008 that focused on flaws with the nation's response to 9/11, Obama has kept most of the counterterrorism program intact.


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In some cases, the administration continues to aggressively use tactics his supporters once decried, such as relying on renditions to detain terrorist suspects who are overseas, as The Washington Post reported this week. In other areas, the administration has expanded the war on terrorism, including the broader use of drone strikes to kill terrorists.










Now come taxes and spending.


With regard to the Bush tax cuts, Obama had promised to overturn a policy that he saw as regressive. Although he always said that he would protect the middle class from tax increases, Obama criticized Bush for pushing through Congress policies that bled the federal government of needed revenue and benefited the wealthy.


In 2010, Obama agreed to temporarily extend all the tax cuts. Though many Democrats were furious, Obama concluded that he had little political chance to overturn them and he seemed to agree with Republicans that reversing them would hurt an economy limping along after a terrible recession.


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With the fiscal cliff deal, Obama could certainly claim more victories than in 2010. Taxes for the wealthiest Americans will go up. Congress also agreed to extend unemployment compensation and continue higher payments to Medicare providers.


But beneath all the sound and fury is the fact that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, for most Americans, are now a permanent part of the legislative landscape. (In addition, middle class Americans will breathe a sigh of relief that Congress has permanently fixed the Alternative Minimum Tax, which would have hit many of them with a provision once designed to make sure that the wealthy paid their fair share.)


As Michigan Republican Rep. Dave Camp remarked, "After more than a decade of criticizing these tax cuts, Democrats are finally joining Republicans in making them permanent." Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new legislation will increase the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.


The tax cuts have significant consequences on all of American policy.


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Most important, the fact that a Democratic president has now legitimated the moves of a Republican administration gives a bipartisan imprimatur to the legitimacy of the current tax rates.


Although some Republicans signed on to raising taxes for the first time in two decades, the fact is that Democrats have agreed to tax rates which, compared to much of the 20th century, are extraordinarily low. Public perception of a new status quo makes it harder for presidents to ever raise taxes on most Americans to satisfy the revenue needs for the federal government.


At the same time, the continuation of reduced taxes keeps the federal government in a fiscal straitjacket. As a result, politicians are left to focus on finding the money to pay for existing programs or making cuts wherever possible.


New innovations in federal policy that require substantial revenue are just about impossible. To be sure, there have been significant exceptions, such as the Affordable Care Act. But overall, bold policy departures that require significant amounts of general revenue are harder to come by than in the 1930s or 1960s.


Republicans thus succeed with what some have called the "starve the beast" strategy of cutting government by taking away its resources. Since the long-term deficit only becomes worse, Republicans will continue to have ample opportunity to pressure Democrats into accepting spending cuts and keep them on the defense with regards to new government programs.


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With his income tax cuts enshrined, Bush can rest comfortably that much of the policy world he designed will remain intact and continue to define American politics. Obama has struggled to work within the world that Bush created, and with this legislation, even with his victories, he has demonstrated that the possibilities for change have been much more limited than he imagined when he ran in 2008 or even in 2012.


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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.






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Feds drop escape charge in downtown prison break









In a surprise move, federal prosecutors today dropped an escape charge against Joseph Jose Banks, a convicted bank robber who made a daring escape from a high-rise South Loop jail by rappelling down some 15 stories with a rope fashioned from bed sheets only to be captured three days later on the North Side.

When he made the bold break for freedom from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Banks, 37, already faced up to 80 years in prison for his conviction the previous week for holding up two banks and trying to rob two others.

To try to obtain the stiffest sentence possible for Banks, prosecutors can use the escape as aggravation at his sentencing for the bank holdups.

The escape charge, by comparison, carried only a maximum of five additional years in prison on conviction.

By dropping the escape charge, prosecutors also avoid another trial for Banks.

After his indictment for the bank robberies, Banks changed his attorneys multiple times and flooded the court with motions, all serving to stall the start of the trial for nearly five years after his 2008 arrest.

Then at trial Banks represented himself and caused repeated interruptions by refusing to recognize the rules of the court and defying orders from the judge.

At one point, he was briefly restrained in a chair.

Banks’ cellmate, Kenneth Conley, also took part in the escape on Dec. 18 and remains at large.

asweeney@tribune.com



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Syria rebels in push to capture air base


AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) - Rebels battled on Thursday to seize an air base in northern Syria, part of a campaign to fight back against the air power that has given President Bashar al-Assad's forces free rein to bomb rebel-held towns.


More than 60,000 people have been killed in the 21-month-old uprising and civil war, the United Nations said this week, sharply raising the death toll estimate in a conflict that shows no sign of ending.


After dramatic advances over the second half of 2012, the rebels now hold wide swathes of territory in the north and east, but are limited in exerting control because they cannot protect towns and villages from Assad's helicopters and jets.


Hundreds of fighters from rebel groups were attempting to storm the Taftanaz air base, near the northern highway that links Syria's two main cities, Aleppo and the capital Damascus.


Rebels have been besieging air bases across the north in recent weeks, in the hope this will reduce the government's power to carry out air strikes and resupply loyalist-held areas.


A rebel fighter speaking from near the Taftanaz base overnight said the base's main sections were still in loyalist hands but insurgents had managed to infiltrate and destroy a helicopter and a fighter jet on the ground.


The northern rebel Idlib Coordination Committee said the rebels had detonated a car bomb inside the base.


The government's SANA news agency said the base had not fallen and that the military had "strongly confronted an attempt by the terrorists to attack the airport from several axes, inflicting heavy losses among them and destroying their weapons and munitions".


Rami Abdulrahman, head of the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which monitors the conflict from Britain, said as many as 800 fighters were involved in the assault, including Islamists from Jabhat al-Nusra, a powerful group that Washington considers terrorists.


Taftanaz is mainly a helicopter base, used for missions to resupply army positions in the north, many of which are cut off by road because of rebel gains, as well as for dropping crude "barrel bombs" of explosives on rebel-controlled areas.


"WHAT IS THE FAULT OF THE CHILDREN?"


Near Minakh, another northern air base that rebels have surrounded, government forces have retaliated by regularly shelling and bombing nearby towns.


In the town of Azaz, where the bombardment has become a near nightly occurrence, shells hit a family house overnight. Zeinab Hammadi said her two wounded daughters, aged 10 and 12, had been rushed across the border to Turkey, one with her brain exposed.


"We were sleeping and it just landed on us in the blink of an eye," she said, weeping as she surveyed the damage.


Family members tried to salvage possessions from the wreckage, men lifting out furniture and children carrying out their belongings in tubs.


"He (Assad) wants revenge against the people," said Abu Hassan, 33, working at a garage near the destroyed house. "What is the fault of the children? Are they the ones fighting?"


Opposition activists said warplanes struck a residential building in another rebel-held northern town, Hayyan, killing at least eight civilians.


Video footage showed men carrying dismembered bodies of children and dozens of people searching for victims in the rubble of the destroyed building, shouting "God is greatest". The provenance of the video could not be independently confirmed.


In addition to their tenuous grip on the north, the rebels also hold a crescent of suburbs on the edge of Damascus, which have come under bombardment by government forces that control the center of the capital.


On Wednesday, according to opposition activists, dozens of people were incinerated in an inferno caused by an air strike on a petrol station in a Damascus suburb where residents were lining up for precious fuel.


The civil war in Syria has become the longest and bloodiest of the conflicts that rose out of uprisings across the Arab world in the past two years.


Assad's family has ruled for 42 years since his father seized power in a coup. The war pits rebels, mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority, against a government supported by members of Assad's Shi'ite-derived Alawite minority sect and some members of other minorities who fear revenge if he falls.


The West, most Sunni-ruled Arab states and Turkey have called for Assad to leave power. He is supported by Russia and Shi'ite Iran.


(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)



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