Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Most ruthless foreclosure states


Most ruthless foreclosure states

Laws vary widely from state to state. Do you know what kind of mortgage you have?

By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- In Alabama, late-paying homeowners can lose their properties to foreclosure at breathtaking speed - as little as 30 days after a delinquency notice is published.

In New York State, the process can drag on for well more than a year.

With foreclosures spiking around the nation, homeowners should learn the foreclosure laws in their states - what you don't know can hurt you.

"The foreclosure laws tend to be very parochial," said Lawrence Jacobson, a real estate attorney in Los Angeles.

One major divide is whether the principal instrument securing the loan is a conventional mortgage or a "deed of trust." They are not the same even though everybody uses the term "mortgage" interchangeably.

In fact, deeds of trust are the more common of the two, used in 34 states either mostly or exclusively.

The difference is this: Mortgages involve two parties, borrowers and lenders, while deeds of trust have third parties, called trustees, who hold temporary title to the properties until borrowers pay off their loans.

That difference can be crucial when a borrower falls behind in payments. With deeds of trust, the trustees don't have to go to court to initiate a foreclosure; with a mortgage, the lender almost always does, which slows down the process.

In states where deeds of trust are an option, lenders almost always choose them over mortgages, because they are "non-judicial" - and quick.

California, where foreclosure might come as soon as 120 days following the delinquency notice, is one of them. Said Jacobson: "I've been a real estate attorney nearly 40 years and I have yet to see a mortgage in California."

In many states, the process can be even quicker. At 30 days, Alabama may be the speed champ but other states with deeds of trust are not far behind. In New Hampshire, Mississippi and others, it takes as little as 60 days. All these states use deeds of trust.

(To see how long it generally takes in your home state, go to and click on a state.)

In contrast, judicial foreclosure, which is the usual procedure when a mortgage is involved, can be slow. First a lawsuit must be filed. Then, there's a period of discovery and a court date must be set. And courts can grant delays to prepare cases. All told, it can take many months.

States with long time frames include Vermont (210 days), Florida and Nebraska (180 days). New York, at 12 to 19 months, is the state with the longest typical time frame.

Although home owners do lose their properties much quicker in most deed-in-trust states, they may enjoy one advantage: liberal "rights of redemption" are more common than in mortgage-only states.

That means even if your home is foreclosed on and auctioned off, there is a time period when you can pay the debt and get the home back.

The window is usually very brief, but can last for as long as a year after the property is sold at auction.

According to Alexis McGee, author of "The Guide to Making Huge Profits Investing in Pre-Foreclosures Without Selling Your Soul," the right of redemption can be tough on foreclosure buyers. "The state gives the owner the right to buy back the property for the price [the auction bidder] paid for it," McGee said. Any additional expenses buyers paid, such as for repairs or maintenance, is lost.

Foreclosures: Hardest hit zip codes.

One more wrinkle for home owners to note is that simply because they've lost their properties to foreclosure, it does not always mean they're completely off the hook for their debts. If the auction sale brings less than the amount owed to the lender, it may still go after the borrower for the balance.

That's called a "deficiency judgment," and it's a right that lenders do not enjoy in every state. As a practical matter, deficiency judgments rarely occur, but Jacobson knew of at least one case where it was invoked.

A couple owned a home that was totally destroyed in an earthquake. Its value to the lender fell to near zero and the owners had no insurance. The lender asked for a deficiency judgment - and won. Top of page

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reuters: Young keep it simple in high-tech world: survey

Young keep it simple in high-tech world: survey

Tue Jul 24, 8:22 AM ET

While young people embrace the Web with real or virtual friends and their cell phone is never far away, relatively few like technology and those that do tend to be in Brazil, India and China, according to a survey.

Only a handful think of technology as a concept, and just 16 percent use terms like "social networking," said two combined surveys covering 8- to 24-year-olds published on Tuesday by Microsoft and Viacom units MTV Networks and Nickelodeon.

"Young people don't see "tech" as a separate entity - it's an organic part of their lives," said Andrew Davidson, vice president of MTV's VBS International Insight unit.

"Talking to them about the role of technology in their lifestyle would be like talking to kids in the 1980s about the role the park swing or the telephone played in their social lives -- it's invisible."

The surveys involved 18,000 young people in 16 countries including the UK, U.S., China, Japan, Canada and Mexico.

Terms most frequently used by the young when talking about technology related to accessing content for free, notably "download and "burn."

The surveyors found the average Chinese computer user has 37 online friends they have never met, Indian youth are most likely to see cell phones as a status symbol, while one-in-three UK and U.S. teenagers say they cannot live without games consoles.

"The way each technology is adopted and adapted throughout the world depends as much on local cultural and social factors as on the technology itself," said Davidson.

For example, the key digital device for Japan's young is the cell phone because of the privacy and portability it offers those who live in small homes with limited privacy.

They found Japanese children aged eight to 14 have only one online friend they have not met, compared to a global average of five. Some 93 percent of Chinese computer users aged 8-14 have more than one friend online they have never met.

Davidson said this was encouraging those aged 8-14 in China to select online over television -- a trend not seen in any other market in that age group.

The changes in how the youth market engages with technology is keenly followed by advertisers and content firms.

"Traditional youth marketing considered opinion formers and influencers to be a small elite, but these days the elite has become much larger," said Davidson.

For parents worried about what their children are getting up to amid the wave of gadgets, little has changed in a generation.

The surveyors found the most popular activities the under-14s enjoy were watching TV, listening to music and being with friends. The rankings for those older was similar although listening to music was top.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Reuters: "Casual" the new video game buzzword

"Casual" the new video game buzzword

By Scott Hillis Fri Jul 13, 5:28 PM ET

Video game companies are hungrily eyeing the millions of people for whom mowing down alien invaders or battling ninjas holds limited appeal.

The video game industry's annual expo is always a showcase for testosterone-filled fighting and driving titles, but this year the word on the lips of many executives is 'casual.'

Driven by the runaway success of Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s (7974.OS) motion-controlled Wii console, makers are pumping out games to play for a few minutes or on the run, such as puzzles and virtual card games -- to the extent that some analysts worry the industry may be spreading itself too thinly.

"There may be a 'casual' glut by 2008," UBS analyst Ben Schachter wrote in a note to clients.

Kathy Vrabeck, head of the newly formed casual games unit at top publisher Electronic Arts Inc. (Nasdaq:ERTS - news), said in an interview that "it's a very difficult business model," given a variety of platforms, from cell phones to consoles, for instance.

But EA devoted almost its entire media briefing at the E3 expo in Santa Monica, California this week to showing off new casual games such as Wii rhythm title "Boogie."

"We believe it's going to be the fastest-growing area within all of gaming," Vrabeck said.

UbiSoft, Europe's biggest publisher known for its slate of realistic military games, also lingered on the casual theme, showing off titles meant to appeal to women, such as "My Life Coach" for Nintendo's DS handheld.

The company expects casual games to account for 20 percent of its revenue this year, double last year's figure.

"It's not the better graphics, it's not the fancy controllers. What we're talking about is widening the nets, bringing more people into our industry," said Tony Key, UbiSoft's vice president of U.S. marketing.

The industry, whose global revenue topped $30 billion last year, has tried for years to shake the stereotype that its consumers consist chiefly of teen-age boys with too few social skills and too much leisure time.

Yet the Entertainment Software Association puts the age of the average game player at 33 years, and says 24 percent of players are over the age of 50. That's almost as much as the portion under the age of 18 -- 28 percent.

The surge of interest in casual games is partly the result of shifting economics that have pressured the bottom lines of many firms.

An A-list title for new gaming consoles from Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT - news) and Sony Corp. (6758.T) can now take four years to make and cost $30 million, two to three times the cost of games for the previous generation of machines.

Yet retail prices have only risen 20 percent, to $60 for a newly released top title.

Moreover, publishers' hopes that gamers would rush to adopt new hardware were dashed by the high cost of the consoles. Fewer consoles in homes meant a smaller base of potential game buyers, and thus weaker sales of those costly new games.

By contrast, casual games, with their simpler graphics and controls, can cost well under $1 million and take just a few months to make. Although they might sell for as little as $5 to $30, they appeal to a broader audience.

Casual games also have their own set of challenges. While much of the focus has been on the Wii and DS due to their popularity, mobile phone and online games strongly appeal to women and older players.

A single mobile phone game may need to be tweaked to run on up to 300 different handset models, and unlike hard-core gamers who don't blink at spending hundreds of dollars a year on the newest games, the casual audience may not become repeat customers.

"Nintendo seems to be the one company that's expanding the gaming market, but there's some cause for concern there because who they're attracting is the casual gamer," said Van Baker, an analyst with research firm Gartner.

"That's something that someone picks up and does for 15 to 20 minutes and then they put it aside. The question is, in three months or six months, is the Wii going to be sitting in the corner forgotten?"

The Good and Bad of Tagalong Technology

I thought this was topical given our last discussion about IT. -Jerry

BusinessWeek Online
The Good and Bad of Tagalong Technology
Monday July 16, 8:08 am ET
By Rachael King

American Airlines employees sporting iPhones may be disappointed when they bring the slick new gadgets to work. The airline recently updated its list of mobile devices allowed to synch with the company's IT systems, and the Apple (NasdaqGS:AAPL - News) device didn't make the cut. "We'll only let certain things connect to our network," says American Airlines (NYSE:AMR - News) Chief Information Officer Monte Ford. His main concern is ensuring outside electronics don't undermine the company's data security.

That preoccupation is widespread among Ford's peers. IT departments at companies as varied as Qwest Communications International (NYSE:Q - News), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC - News), and BusinessWeek parent The McGraw-Hill Companies (NYSE:MHP - News) aren't supporting the iPhone. And worries over consumer tech span a raft of technology -- from iPods to USB drives, to Google (NasdaqGS:GOOG - News) Gmail, even to gaming consoles such as Nintendo's Wii -- wending their way into the workplace.

While many consumer gadgets and software applications can benefit a company -- for instance, by helping employees get their jobs done more efficiently -- the security implications are legion, says Ken Silva, chief security officer at VeriSign (NasdaqGS:VRSN - News), which specializes in network security software. "When we bolt those things onto corporate networks, we open up holes in the environment."

Ban the Interlopers?

Drugmaker Pfizer (NYSE:PFE - News) found this out the hard way. An employee's spouse loaded file-sharing software onto her Pfizer laptop at home, creating a security hole that appears to have compromised the names and Social Security numbers of 17,000 current and former Pfizer employees, according to a letter Pfizer sent to state attorneys general on May 30. Pfizer's investigation showed that 15,700 of those employees actually had their data accessed and copied.

So why not curb the encroachment by banning outside software and hardware altogether? The fact is, much technology aimed at consumers is more innovative and cheaper than products made for companies and just makes good business sense, says Douglas Neal, a research fellow at Computer Sciences' (NYSE:CSC - News) Leading Edge Forum Executive Program. Some workers have a difficult time understanding why they've got a 100-megabyte limit on their corporate e-mail account when they can get 2.5 gigabytes with Gmail, says Steve Prentice, chief of research at Gartner (NYSE:IT - News).

"With few exceptions, people don't do it because they want to be awkward or break security or be a pain in the backside," he says of the tendency to use consumer tech at work. "They do it because of frustration, or a problem or limitation with the IT services provided by the organization."

Airline Goes with Google

In a recent study conducted by the Financial Times newspaper and researchers at the Leading Edge Forum, which brings together researchers and executives to explore IT-related subjects, two-thirds of surveyed U.S. and British FT subscribers said they had equipment at home that was as good as or better than the equipment they had at work.

KLM (NYSE:AKH - News) knows those shortcomings all too well. When the airline wanted to put a search function on its corporate intranet, it spent much time and money testing a costly conventional corporate tool that simply didn't work well. The answer finally came in the form of the Google Mini search appliance that cost all of 2,995 ($4,128).

KLM is one of several companies that have formed the Consumerization Working Group to find ways to use consumer technologies more securely in the workplace. Other participants include DuPont (NYSE:DD - News), Dow (NYSE:DOW - News), Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY - News), and BP (NYSE:BP - News). "There is a huge set of opportunities here," says Neal, who also heads the Consumerization Working Group.

Much More Comfortable

Those opportunities are created by an increasingly tech-savvy workforce whose personal and professional lives are more intertwined than ever. "Sunday morning and Tuesday afternoon are becoming completely the same," says KLM Chief Information Officer Boet Kreiken. At the same time, employees throughout organizations are becoming much more comfortable with a range of technologies.

In years past, employees might have had only a PC at home, notes Prentice at Gartner. Today they may juggle a network linking several PCs, printers, and backup devices connected to a high-speed Internet connection -- in addition to a set-top box, gaming console, high-definition TV, and all manner of other Web-based services such as YouTube and News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS - News) MySpace.

Research by Gartner shows that employees' personal devices have already made inroads into corporate networks. The trend shows no sign of abating. As of September, 2005, 29% of employees and 24% of contractors were using noncompany-owned equipment on company networks, according to a Gartner survey of 404 IT managers in the U.S. and four European countries. Those managers expected use of noncompany-owned hardware to grow to 42% of employees and 32% of contractors by 2008.

Creative Risk Avoidance

Rather than fight the trend, some companies are experimenting with giving employees more choice regarding the technology they use -- so long as they accept more responsibility for it. In 2005, BP began a pilot project that gives employees about $1,000 to spend on productivity-enhancing tools in addition to standard-issue equipment, according to an April report by the Leading Edge Forum's Neal. But before they can participate, employees need to pass the International Computer Driver License test, designed to test a person's computer literacy skills. BP declined to comment on the program.

The company takes other steps to give employees free rein while mitigating risk. BP cordons off its network by letting employees link to the Internet via consumer connections, from outside the firewall, in the case of its 18,000 laptops. At the same time it beefs up security on those machines. This lets employees safely experiment with software such as Amazon's on-demand computing and storage services.

Moving employees outside the firewall is an example of de-perimeterization, a growing movement to change the way corporations address technology security. In a business world where many employees are off-site, or on the road, or where businesses increasingly must collaborate with partners and customers, some say it's not practical to rely on a hardened perimeter of firewalls. Instead, proponents of de-perimeterization say companies should focus on beefing up security in end-user devices and an organization's critical information assets.

Freedom Breeds Inspiration

So a group of companies got together to figure out how to redesign corporate security to accommodate more fluid boundaries and officially formed the Jericho Forum in 2004. Members include Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG - News), Boeing (NYSE:BA - News), and Dresdner Kleinwort.

The hope among many companies is that a little bit of technological freedom will inspire employees to innovate and find new ways of becoming more productive. Already, employees are experimenting with new Web technologies such as wikis, without the explicit permission of the IT department. In 2005, for instance, Intel engineer Josh Bancroft started a wiki because he thought it would be a good idea to have a central place to share information. That wiki, called Intelpedia, has caught on throughout the company and now has more than 5,000 pages of content (see, 3/12/07, "No Rest for the Wiki").

Bottom Up

And even though Monte Ford at American Airlines isn't letting the iPhone into his network, he still wants to foster an environment where innovation can occur without compromising security. His employees came up with the idea of putting the company's instant-messaging system on customized laptops for employees who have to complete a checklist at each plane before each takeoff.

Previously, the mechanics had to go back and forth between the plane and a computer room to look up information about systems and parts or to communicate with pilots. Now all that can be done at the plane. "You have to be willing to reward those things that bubble up from the bottom and expect people to come up with ideas," Ford says. "We're much better off as a company if very few things come from the top, other than direction."

WSJ: IHOP Buys Applebee's for $2.1 Billion

IHOP Buys Applebee's for $2.1 Billion
In Bold Move for Pancake Chain

July 16, 2007 9:12 a.m.

IHOP Corp., the company behind the well-known pancake houses, said Monday it sealed a deal to buy Applebee's International Inc., the largest casual-dining restaurant chain by locations and sales, for about $2.1 billion.

The deal, which was approved by both companies, will give Applebee's holders $25.50 for each of their company shares, a 4.6% premium to where Applebee's shares traded Friday on the Nasdaq Stock Market, but below the company's 52-week high of $29.10.

The move is a gutsy call for IHOP, of Glendale, Calif., and its chairman and chief executive, Julia Stewart. IHOP's market capitalization is roughly half that of Applebee's, of Overland Park, Kan., and IHOP will have to take on substantial debt to fund the purchase.

But the company sees opportunity in putting the two chains together, which combined would represent 3,250 restaurants and sales of nearly $7 billion. In particular, IHOP plans to sell most of Applebee's 500 company-owned restaurants and their underlying real estate to pay down some acquisition debt. The company will focus on franchising opportunities in both the U.S. and abroad.

The move may appease Applebee's investors, who've been pressuring the chain to make drastic moves to reward them after years of slumping performance. But reviving the Applebee's brand could be a difficult task in part because the bar and grill sector is suffering from a glut of competitors.

Ms. Stewart, of IHOP, was president of Applebee's domestic division until 2001. She joined IHOP as president and chief operating officer later that year and became CEO in 2002. Ms. Stewart has said IHOP is interested in buying other chains. Analysts credit Ms. Stewart with reinvigorating the IHOP brand and generating more free cash flow by shifting costs to franchisees.

Applebee's, the nation's largest sit-down restaurant chain with about 2,000 locations, is trying to upgrade its menu to lure higher-income customers who are less sensitive to pressures on consumer spending. But a new menu it launched last year, with items like a bruschetta burger, have failed to reverse a slide in same-store sales. Analysts have said that Applebee's needs to remodel its dated-looking restaurants, something that could require significant spending. For the 13 weeks ended April 1, Applebee's reported net income of $9.5 million on revenue of $337.6 million.

Applebee's put itself up for sale in February after investor Richard C. Breeden launched a campaign for board seats. Mr. Breeden, a former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, won a board seat in April and is on the committee that weighed the sale. IHOP's reliance on franchisees to operate almost all its restaurants fits with Mr. Breeden's strategy of urging Applebee's to own fewer of its locations.

The move comes as mid-priced sit-down restaurants are trying to pull themselves out of one of the industry's worst slumps in several years. A second consecutive summer of high gasoline prices, coupled with declining home values, has eaten into the wallets of the middle-class customers on which Applebee's built its dining empire.

Greenhill & Co. and law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom advised IHOP. Citibank, Banc of America Securities, and law firms Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Simpson Thacher and Bartlett LLP and Blackwell Sanders advised Applebee's, with Lehman Brothers acting as underwriter and provider of bridge financing, if necessary.

Write to Dennis K. Berman at and Janet Adamy at

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Intel Joins OLPC Initiative

PC Magazine
Intel Joins OLPC Initiative

In a surprise move on Friday, Intel announced that it has joined Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) non-profit organization, and will contribute both technology and educational content to the initiative in the future.

The OLPC—made up of corporate members such as AMD, Brightstar, Chi Lin, eBay, Google, Marvell, Quanta Computer, and others—aims to provide low-cost, rugged laptops to children living in the world's most remote and poorest countries. Most recently, the initiative has struggled to produce those laptops and announced that shipments of its Quanta-made XO notebooks would be delayed until the fourth quarter of 2007. A representative for the initiative cited design changes meant to improve the notebook's performance as the reason for the delay.

Intel's decision to join the initiative marks a distinct turnabout for the company. Indeed, the chip maker has gone from competing with OLPC with its "learning-assistant" Classmate PC just a few months ago to being a full-fledged member of the OLPC board today. Possibly owing to that competition, tensions between the two philanthropic initiatives have historically run high.

Intel's chairman, Craig Barrett, publicly disparaged Negroponte's OLPC program when it was first announced, saying that Negroponte should call his program's XO laptop a "$100 gadget," and not a computer. That comment underscored the differences in approach between the two initiatives, with Intel believing that underprivileged children were best served with something that has the full functionality of a PC, something reprogrammable to run all the applications of a grown-up PC, and a product that was geared toward classroom learning.

OLPC, on the other hand, emphasized the individual child and teaching children to use technology in new ways. While Intel's Classmate PC is specifically designed for students in a classroom setting, Negroponte has said that the OLPC project centers more on the child's experience and personal development beyond the classroom—incorporating open-source technology and wiki-type functionality.

This past May, Negroponte lashed back at Intel in a 60 Minutes interview, saying that the company should be ashamed of itself and was undermining the initiative's progress by using philanthropy as a shameless and divisive PR tool.

Now, though, it appears both sides have reconciled their differences.

Negroponte said on Friday that the addition of Intel to the OLPC means that the maximum number of laptops will now reach children, while Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, said that his company's decision would further enhance its educational efforts around the world.

Intel reps said the company will continue to develop its Classmate PC program.

Friday, July 13, 2007

FW: webkinz

Review: Webkinz site not just for kids By MATTHEW BARAKAT, AP Business
Writer Thu Jul 12, 2:16 PM ET

For about a week my 6-year-old son, Mark, was having a grand old time on
Webkinz, one of several children's Web sites that have exploded in
popularity in the last year or so.

Then it dawned on him. His online pet, a gorilla named Ben, was playing
games like "Rock Paper Scissors" and "Go Fish" against the other
denizens of Webkinz World, nearly all of whom were pink kittens or
fluffy-maned horses.

"Is PoniesRock!24 a girl?" he asked.

"What difference does it make?" my wife and I responded.

"Yeah, but is PoniesRock!24 a girl?"

We finally conceded: "Probably, yes."


He quickly reconciled his little internal conflict and was soon happily
back on track. And that was fine with us. Webkinz is one of the few
sites that has captured our son's attention without aggressive
promotional tie-ins for superhero movies or television shows. He doesn't
need a lot of parental help to navigate the site.

And Webkinz has broad appeal.

While it seems that the sweet spot in the Webkinz demographic - what
with the cutesy-pie graphics and the proliferation of fluffy felines in
pastels - is probably the preteen girl, the site has something for
everybody. When we boot Mark off the computer to go play outside, either
my wife or I will often play a few games before we shut it down.

To log on to Webkinz, you first have to buy a specially designated
stuffed animal for about $15 or so. (The toys themselves appear a little
cheaply made, like what you'd find at a roadside carnival. My wife has
already had to stitch Ben up twice.)

The price compares favorably to another popular site, Club Penguin,
which charges about $60 a year for full access, though limited features
are available for free.

The toy comes with a code giving you one year's access to the Webkinz
World site at There your toy gorilla or cat or frog or
bunny becomes a virtual pet, and it's your job to keep it happy, healthy
and well-fed.

You do this by "buying" food, toys and amenities with Webkinz cash,
which you earn by playing the games and fulfilling various tasks.

Or just buy another stuffed animal - you get 2,500 or more in KinzCash
for every subsequent toy you purchase, compared with 3 to 50 by playing
games. That is assuredly part of the reason many people seem to collect
dozens of WebKinz toys.

The huge variety of games and activities is by far the site's best
feature. Some are habit-forming and addictive, including math, word and
shape puzzles in the vein of "Tetris" or sudoku. Most reward critical
thinking in some fashion or another.

Some games appeal to the very young - my 3-year-old laughed
uncontrollably at one game where you whack a puffball-type creature with
a club - and others appeal to adults and teens. I suspect many players
are adults, either using their children's accounts like we do or
childless adults who have moved on from their Beanie Baby collections.

The games can be played solo or two-player, and the Web site will
usually find you a challenger in seconds. You can see the site's appeal
to adults late at night, when the arcade is still hopping and the level
of competition on those word puzzle games rises dramatically.

Some of the games seem complicated even for older kids. A dice game that
is apparently popular was a little confounding. Mark needs help playing
some games, but can do others by himself. The variety is sufficient to
please everybody.

The lack of advertising on the site is also welcome.
The Web site provides rewards and incentives for buying additional toys
but does not seem particularly aggressive in pushing kids to spend real
money. Some features, like tending to a garden, reward players who log
on to the site every day. My wife says it promotes responsibility,
though I find it mildly obnoxious to insist on my child's daily

The ability to outfit your pet's living quarters is also staggering.
Thousands of virtual items are available for purchase, from custom towel
racks for the bathroom, swimming pools for the backyard and designer
clothes for your pet to wear.

The virtual shopping mimics real online shopping, with "add to cart"
icons. Some may see it as indoctrination into real online shopping, but
we were actually pleased because my son is learning to save money,
forgoing smaller items to buy the big stuff.

And it provides an interesting window into what kids find appealing. I
was a little surprised he spent so much time selecting particular types
of furniture.

The Web site limits the ability to chat and interact with other users to
a series of prefab questions and statements - "What's Up?" "I'm feeling
tired." "Do you want to play in the arcade?" and so on. That makes it
impossible for skeevy pervs to prey on children.

Unfortunately those limitations - while necessary - also make it
difficult to have any substantive interaction. Playing a live opponent
really feels no different from playing a computer. What's the fun of
winning "Rock Paper Scissors" if you can't trash-talk your opponent
after your rock whomps all over his scissors?

The interactions with your virtual pet are also a little stilted, and
like politicians, the virtual pets have a tendency to pander to their

"Do you want something to eat?" Mark asked his gorilla.

"You take good care of me," the gorilla responded.

"How are you doing?" Mark asked.

"I'm glad I'm your pet," he responded as a little heart burped out from
the gorilla.

The graphics are cute and simple, and the site itself usually seems to
work well. At times on a recent weekend, though, the entire Web site was
shut down for maintenance. We also previously faced glitches running
some games on a Safari browser on a somewhat-dated Macintosh; those
problems cleared up after switching to the Firefox browser.

The Web site is operated by the Ganz company, a third-generation family
business outside Toronto that had been primarily known for manufacturing
plush toys and collectibles. Spokeswoman Susan McVeigh would not discuss
the number of registered users or which features on the site are most

She did say that the site began in 2005 but really took off late last
year. Many stores have been selling out of the toys.

And she said more boys inhabit Webkinz than people realize.

Ben the gorilla will be glad to hear it.

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to amazing places on Yahoo! Travel.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Buying only U.S. food is a tall order

Buying only U.S. food is a tall order
  Jul 11, 2007 USA Today  

By Elizabeth Weise,

Half of grocery shoppers are making an effort to buy U.S. food products, but it isn't easy, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows. More than half of those shoppers say they find it difficult to determine which countries produced the items in their grocery store.

Products from China rank highest on those shoppers' suspicion scale: 83% are concerned about food from China, compared with 61% concerned about foods from Mexico and 39% concerned about foods from the USA.

The poll questioned 921 adults who shop for groceries. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The numbers are echoed in a survey last month by Consumers Union, the non-profit that publishes Consumer Reports magazine. In that survey, 92% of consumers said they wanted imported foods labeled with country of origin.

"What that says is consumers want to know where and how their food is produced. Country-of-origin labeling is a huge step toward that," says Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist at Consumers Union.

Country-of-origin labeling rules are scheduled to go into effect for beef, lamb, pork, peanuts, and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables on Sept. 30. The Department of Agriculture is gathering public comment on the rule, which twice has been postponed by Congress since it was passed in 2002.

Rangan says such labeling is "another important way for consumers to do their own tracking, especially when imported food products fail."

But buying only U.S.-produced foods would take consumers back to the 19th century, says Regina Hildwine, senior director for food labeling and standards at the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

"We've become accustomed to the availability of a wide variety of foods at all seasons," she says. "Our marketplace really does come from the whole world."


Google lets users overlay data on personalized maps

Google lets users overlay data on personalized maps

By Eric AuchardWed Jul 11, 1:46 AM ET

Google Inc. will introduce on Wednesday a new feature that lets users create personalized maps which plot the locations of everything from cheap gas locally to the latest earthquakes worldwide.

MyMaps, as the new feature is known, allows consumers to select from more than one hundred mini-applications created by independent software developers. These allow users to overlay data on top of Google's popular online map service.

Visitors to after Wednesday at 6 a.m. PDT (1300 GMT) will find a new tab that contains links to dozens of the mini-applications, which Google calls Maplets.

One map application allows users to watch YouTube videos based on the locations where they are uploaded. One could switch from the video confessions of a teenager in Ohio to tourist videos shot in the Andes mountains of South America.

Among the applications created by software developers over the past month are programs that allow users to link famous photos taken in locations around the world to Google Maps.

Alternately, photos that have location information on the Flickr photo sharing service can be found on a Flickr Maps application. Users can map local real estate prices, plot hotels or locate the cheapest gas station nearby.

"We are putting the Web into maps," said John Hanke, a product manager for Google Maps, said of the diversity of information users now will be able to locate geographically.

Furthermore, users can overlay multiple applications on top of Google Maps to find interesting geographical correlations.

Before buying a house, a potential property owner could overlay local crime statistics on their new neighborhood.

Tourists could check out photos posted by other tourists to sites such as Yahoo Inc.'s Flickr to figure out what the hotel or the surrounding region looks like before they book a reservation.

Consumers who have signed up for a Google Gmail account can save personalized maps. Users who choose not to sign into Google services can remain anonymous but use the service, Hanke said.


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Thursday, July 5, 2007

from the WSJ - on naked shorting

Blame the 'Stock Vault'?
Clearinghouse Faulted
On Short-Selling Abuse;
Finding the Naked Truth
July 5, 2007; Page C1

Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. is a little-known institution in the nation's stock markets with a seemingly straightforward job: It is the middleman that helps ensure delivery of shares to buyers and money to sellers.

About 99% of the time, trades are completed without incident. But about 1% of the shares -- valued at about $2.5 billion on a given a day -- aren't delivered to the buyer within the requisite three days, for one reason or another.

These "failures to deliver" have put DTCC in the middle of a long-running fight over whether unscrupulous investors are driving down hundreds of small companies' share prices.

At issue is a nefarious twist on short-selling, a legitimate practice that involves trying to profit on a stock's falling price by selling borrowed shares in hopes of later replacing them with cheaper ones. The twist is known as "naked shorting" -- selling shares without borrowing them.

Illegal except in limited circumstances, naked shorting can drive down a stock's price by effectively increasing the supply of shares for the period, some people argue.

There is no dispute that illegal naked shorting happens. The fight is over how prevalent the problem is -- and the extent to which DTCC is responsible. Some companies with falling stock prices say it is rampant and blame DTCC as the keepers of the system where it happens. DTCC and others say it isn't widespread enough to be a major concern.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has viewed naked shorting as a serious enough matter to have made two separate efforts to restrict the practice. The latest move came last month, when the SEC further tightened the rules regarding when stock has to be delivered after a sale. But some critics argue the SEC still hasn't done enough.

The controversy has put an unaccustomed spotlight on DTCC. Several companies have filed suit against DTCC regarding delivery failure. DTCC officials say the attacks are unfounded and being orchestrated by a small group of plaintiffs' lawyers and corporate executives looking to make money from lawsuits and draw attention away from problems at their companies.

Historic Roots

The naked-shorting debate is a product of the revolution that has occurred in stock trading over the past 40 years. Up to the 1960s, trading involved hundreds of messengers crisscrossing lower Manhattan with bags of stock certificates and checks. As trading volume hit 15 million shares daily, the New York Stock Exchange had to close for part of each week to clear the paperwork backlog.

That led to the creation of DTCC, which is regulated by the SEC. Almost all stock is now kept at the company's central depository and never leaves there. Instead, a stock buyer's brokerage account is electronically credited with a "securities entitlement." This electronic credit can, in turn, be sold to someone else.

Replacing paper with electrons has allowed stock-trading volume to rise to billions of shares daily. The cost of buying or selling stock has fallen to less than 3.5 cents a share, a tenth of paper-era costs.

But to keep trading moving at this pace, the system can provide cover for naked shorting, critics argue. If the stock in a given transaction isn't delivered in the three-day period, the buyer, who paid his money, is routinely given electronic credit for the stock. While the SEC calls for delivery in three days, the agency has no mechanism to enforce that guideline.

'Phantom Stock'

Some delivery failures linger for weeks or months. Until that failure is resolved, there are effectively additional shares of a company's stock rattling around the trading system in the form of the shares credited to the buyer's account, critics say. This "phantom stock" can put downward pressure on a company's share price by increasing the supply.

DTCC officials counter that for each undelivered share there is a corresponding obligation created to deliver stock, which keeps the system in balance. They also say that 80% of the delivery failures are resolved within two business weeks.

There are legitimate reasons for delivery failures, including simple clerical errors. But one illegitimate reason is naked shorting by traders looking to drive down a stock's price.

Critics contend DTCC has turned a blind eye to the naked-shorting problem.

Denver Lawsuit

In a lawsuit filed in Nevada state court, Denver-based Nanopierce Technologies Inc. contended that DTCC allowed "sellers to maintain significant open fail to deliver" positions of millions of shares of the semiconductor company's stock for extended periods, which helped push down Nanopierce's shares by more than 50%. The small company, which is now called Vyta Corp., trades on the electronic OTC Bulletin Board market. In recent trading, the stock has traded around 40 cents. A Nevada state court judge dismissed the suit, which prompted an appeal by the company.

DTCC says the roughly dozen other cases against it have almost all been dismissed or not pursued by the plaintiffs.

Nanopierce garnered support from the North American Securities Administrators Association, which represents state stock regulators. The group filed a brief arguing that if the company's claims were correct, its shareholders "have been the victims of fraud and manipulation at the hands of the very entities that should be serving their interest."

DTCC's Defense

DTCC General Counsel Larry Thompson calls the Nanopierce claims "pure invention." DTCC officials say the main responsibility for resolving delivery failures lies with the brokerage firms. DTCC nets the brokerage firms' positions but it is the brokerages that manage their individual client accounts and know which client failed to deliver their stock.

DTCC officials say that Nanopierce had internal business problems -- including heavy losses -- to explain its stock-price drop. DTCC received support in the suit from the SEC, which filed a brief defending the trade-processing system and arguing that federal regulation pre-empted state-court review.

In January 2005, the SEC made an initial swipe at the naked-shorting problem by requiring that if delivery failures in a particular stock reached a high enough level, many of those failures would have to be resolved within 13 business days. But some failures weren't covered by the rule. The SEC action in June aimed to cover those remaining delivery failures. Naked shorting could "undermine the confidence of investors" in the stock market, SEC Chairman Christopher Cox says.

However, it doesn't seem likely that the SEC's latest move will end the debate that has been raging in the market for years. While lauding the SEC action, critics are questioning whether it is sufficient. The SEC still hasn't taken all the steps necessary to ensure "a free and transparent market" as required under federal securities laws, says James W. Christian, a Houston attorney who represents several companies that claim to have been damaged by naked shorting.

Among other things, authorities need to make public much more trading data related to stock-delivery failures, he says.

Critics contend that DTCC and the SEC have been too secretive with delivery-failure data, depriving the public of important information about where naked shorting might be taking place. Currently, DTCC's delivery-failure data can only be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the SEC, which has released some statistics that are generally two months old.

In light of the controversy, DTCC has proposed making more information available and the SEC says it is looking at releasing aggregate delivery-failure data on a quarterly basis.

Write to John R. Emshwiller at and Kara Scannell at