Wall Street Week Ahead: Attention turns to financial earnings

NEW YORK (Reuters) - After over a month of watching Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street can get back to what it knows best: Wall Street.


The first full week of earnings season is dominated by the financial sector - big investment banks and commercial banks - just as retail investors, free from the "fiscal cliff" worries, have started to get back into the markets.


Equities have risen in the new year, rallying after the initial resolution of the fiscal cliff in Washington on January 2. The S&P 500 on Friday closed its second straight week of gains, leaving it just fractionally off a five-year closing high hit on Thursday.


An array of financial companies - including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase - will report on Wednesday. Bank of America and Citigroup will join on Thursday.


"The banks have a read on the economy, on the health of consumers, on the health of demand," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.


"What we're looking for is demand. Demand from small business owners, from consumers."


EARNINGS AND ECONOMIC EXPECTATIONS


Investors were greeted with a slightly better-than-anticipated first week of earnings, but expectations were low and just a few companies reported results.


Fourth quarter earnings and revenues for S&P 500 companies are both expected to have grown by 1.9 percent in the past quarter, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.


Few large corporations have reported, with Wells Fargo the first bank out of the gate on Friday, posting a record profit. The bank, however, made fewer mortgage loans than in the third quarter and its shares were down 0.8 percent for the day.


The KBW bank index <.bkx>, a gauge of U.S. bank stocks, is up about 30 percent from a low hit in June, rising in six of the last eight months, including January.


Investors will continue to watch earnings on Friday, as General Electric will round out the week after Intel's report on Thursday.


HOUSING, INDUSTRIAL DATA ON TAP


Next week will also feature the release of a wide range of economic data.


Tuesday will see the release of retail sales numbers and the Empire State manufacturing index, followed by CPI data on Wednesday.


Investors and analysts will also focus on the housing starts numbers and the Philadelphia Federal Reserve factory activity index on Thursday. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment numbers are due on Friday.


Jim Paulsen, chief investment officer at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis, said he expected to see housing numbers continue to climb.


"They won't be that surprising if they're good, they'll be rather eye-catching if they're not good," he said. "The underlying drive of the markets, I think, is economic data. That's been the catalyst."


POLITICAL ANXIETY


Worries about the protracted fiscal cliff negotiations drove the markets in the weeks before the ultimate January 2 resolution, but fear of the debt ceiling fight has yet to command investors' attention to the same extent.


The agreement was likely part of the reason for a rebound in flows to stocks. U.S.-based stock mutual funds gained $7.53 billion after the cliff resolution in the week ending January 9, the most in a week since May 2001, according to Thomson Reuters' Lipper.


Markets are unlikely to move on debt ceiling news unless prominent lawmakers signal that they are taking a surprising position in the debate.


The deal in Washington to avert the cliff set up another debt battle, which will play out in coming months alongside spending debates. But this alarm has been sounded before.


"The market will turn the corner on it when the debate heats up," Prudential Financial's Krosby said.


The CBOE Volatility index <.vix> a gauge of traders' anxiety, is off more than 25 percent so far this month and it recently hit its lowest since June 2007, before the recession began.


"The market doesn't react to the same news twice. It will have to be more brutal than the fiscal cliff," Krosby said. "The market has been conditioned that, at the end, they come up with an agreement."


(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; editing by Rodrigo Campos)



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Armstrong to admit doping in Oprah interview


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lance Armstrong will make a limited confession to doping during his televised interview with Oprah Winfrey next week, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.


Armstrong, who has long denied doping, will also offer an apology during the interview scheduled to be taped Monday at his home in Austin, according to the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to speak publicly on the matter.


While not directly saying he would confess or apologize, Armstrong sent a text message to The Associated Press early Saturday that said: "I told her (Winfrey) to go wherever she wants and I'll answer the questions directly, honestly and candidly. That's all I can say."


The 41-year-old Armstrong, who vehemently denied doping for years, has not spoken publicly about the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report last year that cast him as the leader of a sophisticated and brazen doping program on his U.S. Postal Service teams that included use of steroids, blood boosters and illegal blood transfusions.


The USADA report led to Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and given a lifetime ban from the sport.


Several outlets had reported that Armstrong was considering a confession. The interview will be broadcast Thursday on the Oprah Winfrey Network and oprah.com.


A confession would come at a time when Armstrong is still facing some legal troubles.


Armstrong faces a federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed by former teammate Floyd Landis accusing him of defrauding the U.S. Postal Service, but the U.S. Department of Justice has yet to announce if it will join the case. The British newspaper The Sunday Times is suing Armstrong to recover about $500,000 it paid him to settle a libel lawsuit.


A Dallas-based promotions company has threatened to sue Armstrong to recover more than $7.5 million it paid him as a bonus for winning the Tour de France.


But potential perjury charges stemming from his sworn testimony denying doping in a 2005 arbitration fight over the bonus payments have passed the statute of limitations.


Armstrong lost most of his personal sponsorship — worth tens of millions of dollars — after USADA issued its report and he left the board of the Livestrong cancer-fighting charity he founded in 1997. He is still said to be worth an estimated $100 million.


Livestrong might be one reason to issue an apology or make a confession. The charity supports cancer patients and still faces an image problem because of its association with its famous founder.


Armstrong could also be hoping a confession would allow him to return to competition in elite triathlon or running events, but World Anti-Doping Code rules state his lifetime ban cannot be reduced to less than eight years. WADA and U.S. Anti-Doping officials could agree to reduce the ban further depending on what new information Armstrong provides and his level of cooperation.


Armstrong met with USADA officials recently to explore a "pathway to redemption," according to a report by "60 Minutes Sports" aired Wednesday on Showtime.


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No ‘Death Star’ for US Military, White House Says






The planet-killing Death Star may have been the ultimate weapon for the Empire in the “Star Wars” films, but it has no place in the United States military today, a White House official said Friday (Jan. 11).


The statement, an official response a petition to begin building a real-life Death Star by 2016 on the White House‘s We the People website, said President Barack Obama‘s Administration cannot support building the science fiction weapon for several down-to-Earth reasons.






“The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon,” wrote Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.


The Death Star petition, posted in the November, was signed by 34,435 people and the White House has pledged to respond to any petitions that garner 25,000 signatures in 30 days.


Not the least of the hurdles for a real-life Death Star is the space construction costs, which Shawcross said has been estimated at $ 850 quadrillion (that’s $ 850,000,000,000,000,000). The White House is trying to reduce the deficit, not expand it, Shawcross wrote.


Then there’s the Death Star’s planet-destroying warship nature.


“The Administration does not support blowing up planets,” Shawcross wrote.


And of course, there’s the fact that Luke Skywalker destroyed the first Death Star with a single X-wing fighter.


“Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that could be exploited by a one-man starship?” Shawcross explained.


While there will be no moon-size Death Star in the U.S. military’s arsenal by 2016, Saturn’s real-life moon Mimas does look eerily similar to the fictional warship. [Saturn's'Death Star' Moon Mimas (Photos)]


Last year, astronomers with the agency’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also announced that they found a real-life version of Tatooine, Luke’s home planet with two suns. NASA also plans to send astronauts where no one has gone before — an asteroid — by 2025, and then take aim a manned trip to Mars in the 2030s.


And Shawcross also urged the public to go outside at night and look up.


“However, look carefully (here’s how) and you’ll notice something already floating in the sky — that’s no moon, it’s a space station!” Shawcross wrote. “Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that’s helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations.”


The International Space Station  is a $ 100 billion orbiting lab — a deal compared to the Death Star — and is currently home to a six-man crew representing the United States, Russia and Canada. Construction of the space station began in 1998 and today it is the largest manmade structure in space. It has the same living space as a five-bedroom house


The space station can appear so bright to observers on Earth that at times it rivals Venus, the brightest planet in the night sky. Two American astronauts (of NASA), three Russian cosmonauts and a Canadian astronaut currently live on the station.


And Shawcross said there are other Star Wars technologies besides the Death Star that do have a place in today’s society.


“We don’t have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the space station, a President who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke’s [robotic] arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers,” Shawcross wrote.


“We are living in the future!” Shawcross wrote. “Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.”


The Administration and NASA have both been working to spur interest in science, math, engineering and technology among students.


“If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us!” Shawcross concluded. “Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”


For Shawcross’s full response to the Death Star response, visit: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/response/isnt-petition-response-youre-looking


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.
Space and Astronomy News Headlines – Yahoo! News





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Saudi execution: Brutal and illegal?






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Saudi authorities beheaded Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan woman

  • She was convicted of killing a baby of the family employing her as a housemaid

  • This was despite Nafeek's claims that the baby died in a choking accident

  • Becker says her fate "should spotlight the precarious existence of domestic workers"




Jo Becker is the Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch and author of 'Campaigning for Justice: Human Rights Advocacy in Practice.' Follow Jo Becker on Twitter.


(CNN) -- Rizana Nafeek was a child herself -- 17 years old, according to her birth certificate -- when a four-month-old baby died in her care in Saudi Arabia. She had migrated from Sri Lanka only weeks earlier to be a domestic worker for a Saudi family.


Although Rizana said the baby died in a choking accident, Saudi courts convicted her of murder and sentenced her to death. On Wednesday, the Saudi government carried out the sentence in a gruesome fashion, by beheading Rizana.



Jo Becker

Jo Becker



Read more: Outrage over beheading of Sri Lankan woman by Saudi Arabia


Rizana's case was rife with problems from the beginning. A recruitment agency in Sri Lanka knew she was legally too young to migrate, but she had falsified papers to say she was 23. After the baby died, Rizana gave a confession that she said was made under duress -- she later retracted it. She had no lawyer to defend her until after she was sentenced to death and no competent interpreter during her trial. Her sentence violated international law, which prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18.


Rizana's fate should arouse international outrage. But it should also spotlight the precarious existence of other domestic workers. At least 1.5 million work in Saudi Arabia alone and more than 50 million -- mainly women and girls -- are employed worldwide according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).


Read more: Indonesian maid escapes execution in Saudi Arabia






Again according to the ILO, the number of domestic workers worldwide has grown by more than 50% since the mid-1990s. Many, like Rizana, seek employment in foreign countries where they may be unfamiliar with the language and legal system and have few rights.


When Rizana traveled to Saudi Arabia, for example, she may not have known that many Saudi employers confiscate domestic workers' passports and confine them inside their home, cutting them off from the outside world and sources of help.


It is unlikely that anyone ever told her about Saudi Arabia's flawed criminal justice system or that while many domestic workers find kind employers who treat them well, others are forced to work for months or even years without pay and subjected to physical or sexual abuse.




Passport photo of Rizana Nafeek



Read more: Saudi woman beheaded for 'witchcraft and sorcery'


Conditions for migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia are among some of the worst, but domestic workers in other countries rarely enjoy the same rights as other workers. In a new report this week, the International Labour Organization says that nearly 30% of the world's domestic workers are completely excluded from national labor laws. They typically earn only 40% of the average wage of other workers. Forty-five percent aren't even entitled by law to a weekly day off.


Last year, I interviewed young girls in Morocco who worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for a fraction of the minimum wage. One girl began working at age 12 and told me: "I don't mind working, but to be beaten and not to have enough food, this is the hardest part."


Many governments have finally begun to recognize the risks and exploitation domestic workers face. During 2012, dozens of countries took action to strengthen protections for domestic workers. Thailand, and Singapore approved measures to give domestic workers a weekly day off, while Venezuela and the Philippines adopted broad laws for domestic workers ensuring a minimum wage, paid holidays, and limits to their working hours. Brazil is amending its constitution to state that domestic workers have all the same rights as other workers. Bahrain codified access to mediation of labor disputes.


Read more: Convicted killer beheaded, put on display in Saudi Arabia


Perhaps most significantly, eight countries acted in 2012 to ratify -- and therefore be legally bound by -- the Domestic Workers Convention, with more poised to follow suit this year. The convention is a groundbreaking treaty adopted in 2011 to guarantee domestic workers the same protections available to other workers, including weekly days off, effective complaints procedures and protection from violence.


The Convention also has specific protections for domestic workers under the age of 18 and provisions for regulating and monitoring recruitment agencies. All governments should ratify the convention.


Many reforms are needed to prevent another tragic case like that of Rizana Nafeek. The obvious one is for Saudi Arabia to stop its use of the death penalty and end its outlier status as one of only three countries worldwide to execute people for crimes committed while a child.


Labor reforms are also critically important. They may have prevented the recruitment of a 17 year old for migration abroad in the first place. And they can protect millions of other domestic workers who labor with precariously few guarantees for their safety and rights.


Read more: Malala, others on front lines in fight for women


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jo Becker.






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Notre Dame's Kelly taking Eagles, NFL interest to brink









If Brian Kelly and his camp are using an NFL flirtation as a bargaining ploy, they may be pushing it to the absolute brink.

The Notre Dame coach interviewed with the Eagles on Tuesday and has a second meeting with the team set for this weekend, according to a published report. Meanwhile, Kelly continued to confer with NFL people about what it's like to coach at that level, a league source said early Saturday.

Kelly was on vacation the past few days -- though it was not believed to be a European jaunt, as multiple outlets have reported -- and the New York Daily News reported that "the Eagles and Kelly have agreed to revisit talks when he returns this weekend."

Comcast SportsNet Chicago reported that Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie's private jet is in Chicago, though no specific reason was given. But the NFL Network's Albert Breer may have quashed the notion of a Kelly meeting by reporting the Eagles will interview Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley on Saturday in Atlanta.

The conversations with NFL folks have been set up via Kelly's camp and began before his interview with the Eagles last week, but a league source told the Tribune they continued into the weekend. It doesn't preclude Kelly's return to Notre Dame at all, but it suggests more than a passing fancy with the idea of coaching at the next level.

There has been precious little in the way of enlightenment from South Bend, Ind., during Kelly's apparent dalliance. And all of it indeed may be a way to strong-arm Notre Dame into meeting the demands of a head coach just a few days removed from a championship game appearance -- a disastrous championship game appearance, but a shot at a title nonetheless.

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick sent word through a spokesman that he would have no comment. There are people close to Kelly who had not been updated about the situation a few days into it, and there are team members who as of Friday night who had not received any communication at all from staffers on the subject.

One person familiar with the Eagles' view of the first interview says there was "strong mutual interest" between the two parties, and the Tribune's David Haugh reported Thursday that Kelly previously had reached out to an NFL coach to see how professional jobs differ from college gigs.

None of that precludes a return to Notre Dame with a new contract and more money for Kelly and his assistants, which for most of the week seemed the most likely scenario -- and still may be -- though the reported second meeting with the Eagles is an intriguing complication.

Notre Dame begins classes on Tuesday and the Irish were believed to have a team meeting of some kind set for Monday. That seemingly would put an imperative on Kelly to make a decision and get a deal done, with either side, within 24 or 48 hours.

The Eagles, meanwhile, had more interviews set with more head coaching candidates into next week. That doesn't preempt a spate of cancellations, of course, if they found their man in Kelly.

bchamilton@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribHamilton



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Obama, Karzai accelerate end of U.S. combat role in Afghanistan


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on Friday to speed up the handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, raising the prospect of an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from the country and underscoring Obama's determination to wind down a long, unpopular war.


Signaling a narrowing of differences, Karzai appeared to give ground in talks at the White House on U.S. demands for immunity from prosecution for any American troops who stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, a concession that could allow Obama to keep at least a small residual force there.


Both leaders also threw their support behind tentative Afghan reconciliation efforts with Taliban insurgents, endorsing the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar in hopes of bringing insurgents to inter-Afghan talks.


Outwardly, at least, the meeting appeared to be something of a success for both men, who need to show their vastly different publics they are making progress in their goals for Afghanistan. There were no signs of the friction that has frequently marked Obama's relations with Karzai.


Karzai's visit came amid stepped-up deliberations in Washington over the size and scope of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan once the NATO-led combat mission concludes at the end of 2014.


"By the end of next year, 2014, the transition will be complete," Obama said at a news conference with Karzai standing at his side. "Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end."


The Obama administration has been considering a residual force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops - far fewer than some U.S. commanders propose - to conduct counterterrorism operations and to train and assist Afghan forces.


A top Obama aide said this week that the administration does not rule out a complete withdrawal after 2014, a move that some experts say would be disastrous for the weak Afghan central government and its fledgling security apparatus.


Obama on Friday left open the possibility of that so-called "zero option" when he several times used the word "if" to suggest that a post-2014 U.S. presence was far from guaranteed.


Insisting that Afghan forces were "stepping up" faster than expected, Obama said Afghan troops would take over the lead in combat missions across the country this spring, rather than waiting until the summer as originally planned. NATO troops will then assume a "support role," he said.


"It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty," Obama said.


Obama said final decisions on this year's troop cuts and the post-2014 U.S. military role were still months away, but his comments suggested he favors a stepped-up withdrawal timetable.


There are some 66,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. Washington's NATO allies have been steadily reducing their troop numbers as well despite doubts about the ability of Afghan forces to shoulder full responsibility for security.


'WAR OF NECESSITY'


Karzai voiced satisfaction over Obama's agreement to turn over control of detention centers to Afghan authorities, a source of dispute between their countries, although the White House released no details of the accord on that subject.


Obama once called Afghanistan a "war of necessity." But he is heading into a second term looking for an orderly way out of the conflict, which was sparked by the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by an al Qaeda network harbored by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.


He faces the challenge of pressing ahead with his re-election pledge to continue winding down the war while preparing the Afghan government to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence once most NATO forces are gone.


Former Senator Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee to become defense secretary, is likely to favor a sizable troop reduction.


Karzai, meanwhile, is eager to show he is working to ensure Afghans regain full control of their territory after a foreign military presence of more than 11 years.


Asked whether the cost of the war in lives and money was worth it, Obama said: "We achieved our central goal ... or have come very close to achieving our central goal, which is to de-capacitate al Qaeda, to dismantle them, to make sure that they can't attack us again."


He added: "Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. This is a human enterprise, and you fall short of the ideal."


Obama made clear that unless the Afghan government agrees to legal immunity for U.S. troops, he would withdraw them all after 2014 - as happened in Iraq at the end of 2011.


Karzai, who criticized NATO over civilian deaths, said that with Obama's agreement to transfer detention centers and the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghan villages, "I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity" in a bilateral security pact being negotiated.


Addressing students at Georgetown University later in the day, the Afghan leader predicted with certainty that the United States would keep a limited number of troops in Afghanistan after 2014, in part to battle al Qaeda and its affiliates.


"One of the reasons the United States will continue a limited presence in Afghanistan after 2014 in certain facilities in Afghanistan is because we have decided together to continue to fight against al Qaeda," Karzai said. "So there will be no respite in that."


Many of Obama's Republican opponents have criticized him for setting a withdrawal timetable and accuse him of undercutting the U.S. mission by reducing troop numbers too quickly.


Karzai and his U.S. partners have not always seen eye to eye, even though the American military has been crucial to preventing insurgent attempts to oust him.


In October, Karzai accused Washington of playing a double game by fighting the war in Afghan villages instead of going after insurgents who cross the border from neighboring Pakistan.


In Friday's news conference, Karzai did not back down from his previous comments that foreigners were responsible for some of the official corruption critics say is rampant in Afghanistan. But he acknowledged: "There is corruption in the Afghan government that we are fighting against."


Adding to tensions has been a rash of deadly "insider" attacks by Afghan soldiers and police against NATO-led troops training or working with them. U.S. forces have also been involved in a series of incidents that enraged Afghans, including burning Korans, which touched off days of rioting.


(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Mark Felsenthal, Jeff Mason, Phil Stewart, Tabassum Zakaria, David Alexander; Editing by Warren Strobel and Will Dunham)



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Wall Street slips, weighed by Wells Fargo, banks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks dipped on Friday, weighed by losses in the banking sector, after Wells Fargo & Co reported a decline in net interest margin despite a record profit in the latest quarter.


"It (Wells Fargo results) is weighing on the sector. We are keeping our fingers crossed that this won't be a sector thing and more confined to Wells Fargo, but it's definitely playing a factor today," said Larry Peruzzi, senior equity trader at Cabrera Capital Markets LLC in Boston.


Wells Fargo, the fourth-biggest U.S. bank and the nation's largest home lender, said its fourth-quarter net interest margin - a key measure of how much money banks make from loans - fell, even as profit jumped 24 percent. The bank also made fewer mortgage loans than in the third quarter.


The bank's shares were down more than 1 percent at $35.02. The S&P 500 financial sector index <.gspf> fell 0.5 percent and the KBW Banks index <.bkx> fell 0.9 percent.


Wells Fargo was the first big U.S. bank to report fourth-quarter results. Bank of America Corp , JPMorgan Chase & Co and Citigroup Inc are due to report next week.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 0.70 points, or 0.01 percent, at 13,471.92. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 2.56 points, or 0.17 percent, at 1,469.56. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 4.49 points, or 0.14 percent, at 3,117.27.


Keenly watched Friday were also shares of Dow component Boeing , which fell 2.4 percent to $75.25 after a cracked cockpit window and an oil leak on separate flights in Japan added to other mishaps earlier in the week, compounding safety concerns about its new 787 Dreamliner. The US Department of Transportation said the jet would be subject to a review of its critical systems by regulators.


Best Buy shares rallied after its results showed a bit of a turnaround in its U.S. stores, though same-store sales were flat during the key holiday season. Shares jumped 11.4 percent to $13.60.


Basic materials shares were pressured after China's annual consumer inflation rate picked up to a seven-month high, narrowing the scope for the central bank to boost the economy by easing monetary policy. The S&P basic materials sector <.gspm> fell 0.6 percent.


Dendreon Corp shares jumped 15.3 percent to $5.89 after Sanford C. Bernstein upgraded the drugmaker's stock to "outperform" from "market-perform" and said it could be one of the best performers in 2013.


(Editing by Bernadette Baum)



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Browns introduce Rob Chudzinski as new coach


CLEVELAND (AP) — Rob Chudzinski is back for his third tour with the Cleveland Browns, and this time he's calling the shots.


Chudzinski, who spent the past two seasons as Carolina's offensive coordinator, was introduced as the club's sixth fulltime coach on Friday. He'll inherit a young roster he'll try to develop into a contender with the Browns, who have lost at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons.


The 44-year-old previously worked as an assistant with the Browns, most recently as offensive coordinator in 2008. Chudzinski has no previous head coaching experience, but he's familiar with the Browns and their history. He rooted for the Browns while growing up in Toledo, Ohio.


"I would not miss the chance for the world." Chudzinski said. "We're going to win here."


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Origin of Life: Did a Simple Pump Drive Process?






A new theory proposes the primordial life-forms that gave rise to all life on Earth left deep-sea vents because of their “invention” of a tiny pump. These primitive cellular pumps would have powered life-giving chemical reactions.


The idea, detailed Dec. 20 in the journal Cell, could help explain two mysteries of life’s early origin: How did the earliest proto-cells power chemical reactions to make the organic building blocks of life; and how did they leave hydrothermal vents to colonize early Earth’s oceans?






Authors of the new theory argue the environmental conditions in porous hydrothermal vents — where heated, mineral-laden seawater spews from cracks in the ocean crust — created a gradient in positively charged protons that served as a “battery” to fuel the creation of organic molecules and proto-cells.


Later, primitive cellular pumps gradually evolved the ability to use a different type of gradient — the difference in sodium particles inside and outside the cell — as a battery to power the construction of complex molecules like proteins. And, voilĂ , the proto-cells could leave the deep-sea hydrothermal vents. [Image Gallery: Unique Life at Deep-Sea Vents]


“A coupling of proton gradients and sodium gradients may have played a major role in the origin of life. This is really cool, novel stuff,” Jan Amend, a researcher at the University of Southern California, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email to LiveScience. The study reflects the increasingly popular idea that a simple, everyday source of power, not a rare occurrence like a lightning strike, could have provided the power to initially create life, he said.


Deep-sea start


Many scientists think life got its start around 3.7 billion years ago in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. But figuring out just how complex, carbon-based life formed in that primordial stew has been tricky.


Somehow, the precursors of life harnessed carbon dioxide and hydrogen available in those primitive conditions to create the building blocks of life, such as amino acids and nucleotides (building blocks of DNA). But those chemical reactions require a power source, said study co-author Nick Lane, a researcher at the University College London.


Now, Lane and William Martin, of the Institute of Molecular Evolution at the Heinrich Heine University in Germany, propose that the rocky mineral walls in ocean-floor vents could have provided the means.


The theory goes: At the time of life’s origin, the early ocean was acidic and filled with positively charged protons, while the deep-sea vents spewed out bitter alkaline fluid, which is rich in negatively charged hydroxide ions, Lane told LiveScience.


The vents created furrowed rocky, iron- and sulfur-rich walls full of tiny pores that separated the warm alkaline vent fluid from the cooler, acidic seawater. The interface between the two created a natural charge gradient.


“It’s a little bit like a battery,” Lane told LiveScience.


That battery then powered the chemical transformation of carbon dioxide and hydrogen into simple carbon-based molecules such as amino acids or proteins. Eventually that gradient drove the creation of cellular membranes, complicated proteins and ribonucleic acid (RNA), a molecule similar to DNA.


Leaving the vents


At that point, primitive cells used the thin, serpentine walls of the vent to corral the new carbon-based molecules together into precursors of cells and used the charge gradient in the environment to power the building of more complex organic chemicals.


But in order to leave the vent, primitive cells would have needed some way to carry a power-producing gradient with them — think battery pack. To solve that problem, the team looked at existing archaea bacteria in deep-sea vents.


Those primeval life-forms use a simple type of cellular pump that pushes sodium out of the cell while pulling positively charged protons in. The team proposed that a precursor to that cellular pump evolved in the membranes of the proto-cells.


The membrane started out very leaky, but over time, the membranes would have slowly closed, preventing much larger sodium particles from leaving the cell while smaller protons could still slip through. That enabled the proto-cells to still use the existing power-source in the environment — the charge gradient — while gradually evolving an independent way of getting power.


Eventually, when the pores closed completely, the primitive cells would have had a sodium pump that could power their cellular reactions, enabling more complex life to form. They could then leave their birthplace.


Testing the idea, however, will be tricky, Amend told LiveScience. “Mimicking natural conditions in the lab is a lot more difficult than it sounds.”


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


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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Why global labor reforms are vital






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Saudi authorities beheaded Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan woman

  • She was convicted of killing a baby of the family employing her as a housemaid

  • This was despite Nafeek's claims that the baby died in a choking accident

  • Becker says her fate "should spotlight the precarious existence of domestic workers"




Jo Becker is the Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch and author of 'Campaigning for Justice: Human Rights Advocacy in Practice.' Follow Jo Becker on Twitter.


(CNN) -- Rizana Nafeek was a child herself -- 17 years old, according to her birth certificate -- when a four-month-old baby died in her care in Saudi Arabia. She had migrated from Sri Lanka only weeks earlier to be a domestic worker for a Saudi family.


Although Rizana said the baby died in a choking accident, Saudi courts convicted her of murder and sentenced her to death. On Wednesday, the Saudi government carried out the sentence in a gruesome fashion, by beheading Rizana.



Jo Becker

Jo Becker



Read more: Outrage over beheading of Sri Lankan woman by Saudi Arabia


Rizana's case was rife with problems from the beginning. A recruitment agency in Sri Lanka knew she was legally too young to migrate, but she had falsified papers to say she was 23. After the baby died, Rizana gave a confession that she said was made under duress -- she later retracted it. She had no lawyer to defend her until after she was sentenced to death and no competent interpreter during her trial. Her sentence violated international law, which prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18.


Rizana's fate should arouse international outrage. But it should also spotlight the precarious existence of other domestic workers. At least 1.5 million work in Saudi Arabia alone and more than 50 million -- mainly women and girls -- are employed worldwide according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).


Read more: Indonesian maid escapes execution in Saudi Arabia






Again according to the ILO, the number of domestic workers worldwide has grown by more than 50% since the mid-1990s. Many, like Rizana, seek employment in foreign countries where they may be unfamiliar with the language and legal system and have few rights.


When Rizana traveled to Saudi Arabia, for example, she may not have known that many Saudi employers confiscate domestic workers' passports and confine them inside their home, cutting them off from the outside world and sources of help.


It is unlikely that anyone ever told her about Saudi Arabia's flawed criminal justice system or that while many domestic workers find kind employers who treat them well, others are forced to work for months or even years without pay and subjected to physical or sexual abuse.




Passport photo of Rizana Nafeek



Read more: Saudi woman beheaded for 'witchcraft and sorcery'


Conditions for migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia are among some of the worst, but domestic workers in other countries rarely enjoy the same rights as other workers. In a new report this week, the International Labour Organization says that nearly 30% of the world's domestic workers are completely excluded from national labor laws. They typically earn only 40% of the average wage of other workers. Forty-five percent aren't even entitled by law to a weekly day off.


Last year, I interviewed young girls in Morocco who worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for a fraction of the minimum wage. One girl began working at age 12 and told me: "I don't mind working, but to be beaten and not to have enough food, this is the hardest part."


Many governments have finally begun to recognize the risks and exploitation domestic workers face. During 2012, dozens of countries took action to strengthen protections for domestic workers. Thailand, and Singapore approved measures to give domestic workers a weekly day off, while Venezuela and the Philippines adopted broad laws for domestic workers ensuring a minimum wage, paid holidays, and limits to their working hours. Brazil is amending its constitution to state that domestic workers have all the same rights as other workers. Bahrain codified access to mediation of labor disputes.


Read more: Convicted killer beheaded, put on display in Saudi Arabia


Perhaps most significantly, eight countries acted in 2012 to ratify -- and therefore be legally bound by -- the Domestic Workers Convention, with more poised to follow suit this year. The convention is a groundbreaking treaty adopted in 2011 to guarantee domestic workers the same protections available to other workers, including weekly days off, effective complaints procedures and protection from violence.


The Convention also has specific protections for domestic workers under the age of 18 and provisions for regulating and monitoring recruitment agencies. All governments should ratify the convention.


Many reforms are needed to prevent another tragic case like that of Rizana Nafeek. The obvious one is for Saudi Arabia to stop its use of the death penalty and end its outlier status as one of only three countries worldwide to execute people for crimes committed while a child.


Labor reforms are also critically important. They may have prevented the recruitment of a 17 year old for migration abroad in the first place. And they can protect millions of other domestic workers who labor with precariously few guarantees for their safety and rights.


Read more: Malala, others on front lines in fight for women


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jo Becker.






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Judge OKs exhumation of body of lottery winner













 Urooj Khan holding his winning $1 million USD lottery ticket.


Urooj Khan holding his winning $1 million USD lottery ticket.
(Handout / January 11, 2013)

























































A Cook County probate judge gave the go-ahead today to exhume the body of a million-dollar lottery winner who died of cyanide poisoning.

Judge Susan Coleman gave a quick OK to the request by the medical examiner’s office, saying no one had objected to exhuming Urooj Khan’s body at Rosehill Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side.

Khan’s death is being investigated as a homicide after comprehensive toxicological tests showed he had lethal levels of cyanide in his blood.


Court papers said the body was not embalmed, leading prosecutors to indicate that it was “critical” to arrange for the remains to be exhumed as soon as possible.

In an affidavit, Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina said it was necessary to do a full autopsy to “further confirm the results of the blood analysis as well as to rule out any other natural causes that might have contributed to or caused Mr. Khan’s death.”


jmeisner@tribune.com







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Syria rebels seize base as envoy holds talks


BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) - Rebels seized control of one of Syria's largest helicopter bases on Friday, opposition sources said, in their first capture of a military airfield used by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.


Fighting raged across the country as international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi sought a political solution to Syria's civil war, meeting senior U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva.


But the two world powers are still deadlocked over Assad's fate in any transition.


The United States, which backs the 21-month-old revolt, says Assad can play no future role, while Syria's main arms supplier Russia said before the talks that his exit should not be a precondition for negotiations.


Syria is mired in bloodshed that has cost more than 60,000 lives and displaced millions of people. Severe winter weather is compounding their misery. The U.N. children's agency UNICEF says more than 2 million children are struggling to stay warm.


The capture of Taftanaz air base, after months of sporadic fighting, could help rebels solidify their hold on northern Syria, according to Rami Abdelrahman, head of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


TACTICAL, NOT STRATEGIC GAIN


But Yezid Sayigh, at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said it was not a game-changer, noting that it had taken months for the rebels to overrun a base whose usefulness to the military was already compromised by the clashes around it.


"This is a tactical rather than a strategic gain," he said.


In Geneva, U.N.-Arab League envoy Brahimi's closed-door talks began with individual meetings with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. He later held talks with both sides together.


A U.S. official said negotiations would focus on "creating the conditions to advance a political solution - specifically a transitional governing body".


Six months ago, world powers meeting in Geneva proposed a transitional government but left open Assad's role. Brahimi told Reuters on Wednesday that the Syrian leader could play no part in such a transition and suggested it was time he quit.


Responding a day later, Syria's foreign ministry berated the veteran Algerian diplomat as "flagrantly biased toward those who are conspiring against Syria and its people".


Russia has argued that outside powers should not decide who should take part in any transitional government.


"Only the Syrians themselves can agree on a model or the further development of their country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.


REFUGEE MISERY


But Syrians seem too divided for any such agreement.


The umbrella opposition group abroad, the Syrian National Coalition, said on Friday it had proposed a transition plan that would kept government institutions intact at a meeting with diplomats in London this week. But the plan has received no public endorsement from the opposition's foreign backers.


With no end to fighting in sight, the misery of Syrian civilians has rapidly increased, especially with the advent of some of the worst winter conditions in years.


Saudi Arabia said it would send $10 million worth of aid to help Syrian refugees in Jordan, where torrential rain has flooded hundreds of tents in the Zaatari refugee camp.


A fierce storm that swept the region has raised concerns for 600,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries, as well as more than 2.5 million displaced inside Syria, many of whom live in flimsy tents at unofficial border camps.


Opposition activists report dozens of weather-related deaths in Syria in the last four days. UNICEF said refugee children are at risk because conditions have hampered access to services.


Earlier this week, another United Nations agency said around one million Syrians were going hungry. The World Food Programme cited difficulties entering conflict zones and said that the few government-approved aid agencies allowed to distribute aid were stretched to the limit.


The WFP said it supplying rations to about 1.5 million people in Syria each month, far short of the 2.5 million deemed to be in need.


(Additional reporting by Alexander Dzsiadosz in Beirut and Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi; Editing by Alistair Lyon)



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Wall Street slightly higher on China data; S&P near resistance level

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks inched higher on Thursday, helped by stronger-than-expected exports in China, the world's second-biggest economy, but gains were capped as the S&P 500 hovered near a 5-year high.


Financial and telecommunications stocks were the day's top gainers, while the material sector was the biggest drag. The S&P 500 material sector index <.gspm> was off 0.3 percent. The financial sector index <.gspf> rose 0.6 percent and the telecom sector <.gspl> was up 0.5 percent.


The benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index was near a five-year closing high of 1,466.47. On Friday, the index had ended at the highest close since December 2007.


"The market is technically right at the level of resistance, near 1,465-1,467. A solid breakthrough above the level would be the start of a next leg higher, but it looks like it is going to be difficult to break above that level for now," said Randy Frederick, managing director of active trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab. He cited concerns about the earnings season and upcoming debt ceiling talks.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 9.84 points, or 0.07 percent, at 13,400.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 2.55 points, or 0.17 percent, at 1,463.57. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 2.01 points, or 0.06 percent, at 3,103.80.


In company news, shares of upscale jeweler Tiffany dropped 3.6 percent to $60.98 after it said earnings for the year through January 31 will be at the lower end of its forecast.


U.S.-traded Nokia shares jumped 17.3 percent to $4.40 after the Finnish handset maker said its fourth-quarter results were better than expected and that the mobile phone business achieved underlying profitability.


Herbalife Ltd stepped up its defense against activist investor Bill Ackman, stressing it was a legitimate company with a mission to improve nutrition and help public health. The stock was up 1.4 percent to $40.47.


Data showed China's export growth rebounded sharply to a seven-month high in December, a strong finish to the year after seven straight quarters of slowdown, even as demand from Europe and the United States remained subdued.


In the U.S., claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, though seasonal volatility made it difficult to get a clear picture of the labor market's health.


Also, U.S. wholesale inventories rose more than expected in November and sales rose by the most in more than 1-1/2 years. The market's reaction to both reports was muted.


(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Nick Zieminski)



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Jaguars fire Mularkey after team's worst season


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Jacksonville Jaguars fired coach Mike Mularkey Thursday after just one season, the worst in franchise history.


New general manager David Caldwell made the announcement, giving him a clean slate heading into 2013. Caldwell said he made the move just 48 hours after he was hired because he wants to immediately explore every avenue possible to turn the Jaguars around.


"For that to happen as seamlessly as we want, and as quickly as our fans deserve, I feel it is in everyone's best interests for an immediate and clean restart," Caldwell said.


Mularkey, who went 2-14 this season, looked like he would be one and done when owner Shad Khan parted ways with general manager Gene Smith last week. Even though Khan ultimately hired Mularkey, Smith directed the coaching search last January that started and ended with the former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator.


"Mike Mularkey is leaving our organization with my utmost respect," Khan said. "Mike gave the Jaguars everything he had on and off the field, and his efforts as our head coach will always be appreciated."


Mularkey's brief tenure — he didn't even last a year — was filled with mistakes. His biggest one may have been his loyalty to Smith, who assembled a roster that lacked talent on both sides of the ball.


Mularkey probably stuck with Smith's franchise quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, longer than he should have. And the coach's insistence that the team was closer than outsiders thought and his strong stance that he had the roster to turn things around became comical as the losses mounted. The Jaguars lost eight games by at least 16 points, a staggering number of lopsided losses in a parity-filled league.


Mularkey would have been better served had he said publicly what he voiced privately: that the Jaguars didn't have enough playmakers or a starting-caliber quarterback.


Instead, he never conceded that Jacksonville was a rebuilding project that needed time.


Mularkey signed a three-year contract on Jan. 11, 2012, getting a second chance to be a head coach six years after resigning with the Buffalo Bills.


His return was shaky from the start.


His best player, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, skipped offseason workouts as well as training camp and the preseason in a contract dispute. His first draft pick, receiver Justin Blackmon, was arrested and charged with aggravated DUI in June. And his team was riddled with injuries, including key ones to linebacker Daryl Smith and Jones-Drew.


Even things he had control over went awry.


He had to backtrack after saying Chad Henne would compete with Gabbert for the starting job in March. He created a stir by threatening to fine players up to $10,000 for discussing injuries. He initially played rookie receiver Kevin Elliott over Cecil Shorts III early on. And he really irked some players with tough, padded practices late in a lost season.


Throw in the way he handled injuries to receiver Laurent Robinson (four concussions before going on IR) and Jones-Drew (admittedly should have had foot surgery sooner), and there were reasons to doubt whether Mularkey was cut out to be a head coach. Dating back to his final season in Buffalo, Mularkey has lost 20 of his last 23 games.


Nonetheless, if Khan really wanted to fire Mularkey, he would have done after the season finale along with Smith.


So this was Caldwell's call.


Caldwell and Mularkey spent four years together in Atlanta, getting to know each other well enough that Caldwell didn't need a sit down with Mularkey after he got the GM job Tuesday.


Caldwell and Khan have a news conference scheduled for Thursday afternoon.


Potential replacements for Mularkey include former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.


Roman's name has been linked to the Jaguars since Caldwell became the leading candidate to replace Smith.


Roman and Caldwell were teammates and roommates in the 1990's while attending John Carroll University.


___


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


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Jewel-Osco up for sale









Jewel-Osco stores will be sold to a consortium of investors led by Cerberus Capital Management, Jewel's parent Supervalu said Thursday.

The deal, valued at $3.3 billion, also includes the Albertsons, Acme, and Shaw stores.

The announcement ends months of speculation that all or parts of the troubled grocery chain would be sold to New York-based Cerberus, an investment firm. Supervalu acquired Jewel in 2006 as part of a larger, complex acquisition of the Albertsons company.

Supervalu also reported earnings of $16 million, or 8 cents per share, in the third quarter ended on Dec. 1, compared with a year-earlier loss of $750 million, or $3.54 per share.

Excluding an after-tax gain related to a cash settlement from credit card companies and after-tax charges primarily related to store closures, it earned $5 million, or 3 cents per share.

As part of the deal, which includes $100 million in cash and $3.2 billion in debt, the five grocery chains will be acquired by AB Acquisition, an affiliate of Cerberus. Other investors in the deal include Kimco Realty Corp, Klaff Realty, Lubert-Adler Partners and Schottenstein Real Estate Group.

Following the sale, which is expected to close in the spring, a newly formed entity called Symphony Investors, led by Cerberus, will purchase up to 30 percent of Supervalu's outstanding shares for $4 each, representing a 50 percent premium over the stock's 30-day average. If Symphony cannot acquire at least 19.9 percent of the outstanding shares at that price, Supervalu must issue additional stock.

Wall Street has long expected Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu to sell some or all of its assets.

Following the deal, Supervalu will consist of its wholesale grocery business, the Save-A-Lot discount chain, and traditional grocery chains like Cub, Shop N' Save and Hornbacher's.

In a call with investors, outgoing CEO Wayne Sales said the deal brings Supervalu "a very strong balance sheet," and the ability to focus on investments in price reductions, fresh produce, and customer experience at its remaining chains. 

The new company is smaller, "with more bandwidth and leadership" to focus on its wholesale business, Save-A-Lot, and its traditional grocery stores, he said.


Sam Duncan, 61, will replace Wayne Sales as CEO. Duncan was CEO of Office Max from 2005 to 2011, and prior to that, was CEO of ShopKo, a Midwestern grocery chain. Five unidentified board members will resign as part of the deal, making room for Duncan, Albertsons CEO Robert Miller, and three new appointees. The size of the board will shrink from 10 to seven.

Concurrent with the announcement, Supervalu announced that it has secured access to a $900 million asset-based credit facility, and a $1.5 billion loan.

This deal ends a long and difficult year for one of the country's largest grocers.

Last April, Supervalu reported a loss of $1.04 billion for fiscal 2012, which included a $519 million operating loss and $509 million in interest expense. Sales also declined 3 percent, to $27.9 billion. In July, the company said it was exploring strategic alternatives, including a sale. Soon after, the company dismissed CEO Craig Herkert, with Chairman Wayne Sales stepping in to helm the troubled grocer.

Cerberus, an investor in the deal to acquire Albertsons in 2006 was long seen as the leading candidate. Last week, rumors that Supervalu was near a deal with Cerberus sent stock soaring nearly 15 percent.

In September, Supervalu said it would 60 underperforming stores, primarily from the Save-A-Lot and Albertsons chains. No Jewel locations were identified at the time. The announcement was particularly troubling to investment community because Save-A-Lot, a hard discount chain, has been Supervalu's primary growth vehicle.

Supervalu has long acknowledged that many of its stores are not price competitive. In 2012, it homed in on Jewel-Osco and the Chicago market. Supervalu surveyed customers and lowered prices throughout the store. When the company reported results for its second fiscal quarter in September, (Supervalu CEO Wayne) Sales said that Jewel had been "competitively priced throughout the store" for about six weeks.

Sales said that the initiative had resulted in "dramatic improvement" in how consumers "think about the quality of products we sell, how they feel about the service they get in various departments" and that the company was pleased with increased unit sales.

Traditional supermarkets, large stores built for one-stop-shopping, have suffered as Walmart and Target have added grocery departments, and discount chains like Aldi and Save-A-Lot have proliferated. Dollar stores have also expanded food offerings. And none of these competitors are tied to union contracts, making it easier to keep labor costs, and consequently prices, low.

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Syria denounces peace envoy who hinted Assad must go


BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria denounced international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as "flagrantly biased" on Thursday, casting doubt on how long the U.N.-Arab League mediator can pursue his peace mission.


The Syrian Foreign Ministry was responding to remarks by Brahimi a day earlier in which he ruled out a role for President Bashar al-Assad in a transitional government and effectively called for the Baathist leader to quit.


"In Syria...what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long," Brahimi told the BBC, referring to Assad, who inherited his post from his father Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970 and ruled for 30 years.


"President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it," the veteran Algerian diplomat said, hinting the Syrian leader should go.


The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it was very surprised at Brahimi's comments, which showed "he is flagrantly biased for those who are conspiring against Syria and its people".


Brahimi has had no more success than his predecessor Kofi Annan in his quest for a political solution to a 21-month-old conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed.


British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that violence in Syria might worsen and said the international community must "step up" its response if it does.


So far regional rivalries and divisions among big powers have stymied any concerted approach to the upheaval, one of the bloodiest to emerge from a series of revolts in the Arab world.


Russian and U.S. diplomats, who back opposing sides of the war, will meet Brahimi in Geneva on Friday.


"MASK OF IMPARTIALITY"


Syria's al-Watan newspaper daily said Brahimi had removed his "mask of impartiality" to reveal his true face as a "a tool for the implementation of the policy of some Western countries".


On Sunday Assad, making his first public speech in six months, offered no concessions and he said he would never talk to foes he branded terrorists and Western puppets.


As peace efforts floundered, rebels battled for a strategic air base for a second day, pursuing a civil war that had briefly receded for some Damascus residents who set aside their differences to play in a rare snowfall that blanketed the city.


For a few hours, people in the capital dropped their weapons for snowballs and traded hatred for giggles.


"Last night, for the first time in months, I heard laughter instead of shelling. Even the security forces put down their guns and helped us make a snowman," Iman, a resident of the central Shaalan neighborhood, said by Skype.


There was no respite on other battlefronts, with heavy fighting around the Taftanaz base in northwestern Syria, which insurgents are trying to capture to extend their grip on Idlib province and weaken Assad's control of the skies.


Rebels assaulted the airport's main buildings and armory using heavy guns, tanks and other weapons and appeared to have overrun half the area of the base, said Rami Abdelrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group that monitors the conflict from abroad.


"Now, it's serious," he said.


The air base has been used to launch helicopter attacks in the region, and its loss would be a blow to the government's ability to defend its positions there, Abdelrahman said.


MISSILE LAUNCH


Insurgents have tried to take the base for months, but have been bolstered by the recent arrival of Islamist fighters including the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, he added.


There was no immediate government account of the fighting, which could not be confirmed independently.


Opposition forces have seized swathes of territory in northern Syria in recent months, but remain vulnerable to attack by the military's planes and helicopters - hence their strategy of trying to capture air bases such as the one at Taftanaz.


There was no word on whether the firing of a short-range ballistic missile inside Syria on Wednesday, reported by a NATO official, was linked to the fighting at Taftanaz.


NATO could not confirm the type of missile used, but the description fit the Scuds that are in the Syrian military's armory, the official added, describing the latest launch and similar ones last week as "reckless".


A NATO official said that since the start of December 2012, the alliance had detected at least 15 launches of unguided, short-range ballistic missile inside Syria.


Neither side has gained a clear military advantage in the war pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against security forces dominated by Assad's minority, Shi'ite-linked Alawite sect.


The Observatory also reported fighting between rebels and troops in the Sayyida Zeinab area of Damascus, and air raids were reported in the capital's Maleiha area and eastern suburbs.


Despite some support from Sunni regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels remain largely disorganized, fragmented and ill-equipped. Poor discipline, looting and insecurity in some insurgent-held areas have also eroded their support from civilians.


Gloom has gripped Damascus for months, as the rebellion edges closer to the capital, but the snowfall offered a rare break from gunfire and shelling echoing from its outskirts.


"We felt a smile that has been missing from our faces for almost two years and we were all just Syrians," said Amin, a resident of central Damascus, speaking on the internet.


"For a few hours our hearts were as pure as the snow."


(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon in Beirut and Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Alistair Lyon)



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Wall Street edges up after Alcoa beats revenue estimates

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged higher on Wednesday after Alcoa got the earnings season under way with better-than-expected revenue and an encouraging outlook for the year.


The market's rise came after two-days of declines as there were few catalysts to give direction and investors fretted about the start of earnings season after the prior quarter's lackluster performance.


Alcoa Inc said late on Tuesday it expects global demand for aluminum to grow in 2013, though the company expressed concern about the impact on business from a confrontation in Washington over the U.S. budget. Shares of Alcoa, the largest U.S. aluminum producer, rose 0.5 percent to $9.15.


Profits were expected to beat the previous quarter's meager 0.1 percent rise. Both earnings and revenues in the fourth quarter were expected to grow by 1.9 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.


But the lowered expectations leave room for companies to surprise investors even if their results aren't particularly strong, analysts said.


The current quarter was shaping up like the one before, with companies lowering expectations in recent weeks, James Dailey, portfolio manager of TEAM Asset Strategy Fund in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said.


"So the big question and focus is on revenue, and Alcoa had better-than-expected revenue," calming the market a little, Dailey said.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 73.35 points, or 0.55 percent, at 13,402.20. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 5.16 points, or 0.35 percent, at 1,462.31. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 14.83 points, or 0.48 percent, at 3,106.64.


Among other earnings, Constellation Brands , whose labels include Robert Mondavi and Ravenswood wines, reported higher profit and raised its earnings forecast. The stock was down 0.8 percent at $35.74.


Apollo Group Inc slid more than 11 percent after it reported lower student sign-ups for the third straight quarter and cut its operating profit outlook for 2013. Apollo's shares were last at $18.63.


Dish Network Corp late Tuesday announced a bid for Clearwire Corp that trumped Sprint Nextel Corp's $2.2 billion offer, setting the stage for a battle over the wireless service provider.


Dish Network shares were up 2.1 percent at $36.73. Clearwire was up 7.5 percent at $3.14, while Sprint lost 2 percent to $5.85.


Hard drive maker Seagate Technology rose 4.2 percent to $32.70 after it raised its second-quarter revenue forecast.


(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Kenneth Barry)



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AP Source: Surgery reveals damage to RG3's ACL


WASHINGTON (AP) — A person familiar with the situation says the surgery on Robert Griffin III's knee revealed damage to the ACL.


The Washington Redskins quarterback had surgery Wednesday morning to repair a torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. The procedure also examined Griffin's ACL, which he tore while playing for Baylor in 2009. Another torn ACL would complicate Griffin's chances of returning by the start of next season.


The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the Redskins had not made an announcement about the latest details surrounding the rookie quarterback's injury.


Griffin sprained the LCL last month and reinjured the knee in Sunday's playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.


___


Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP


___


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


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Giant squid captured on video in ocean depths






TOKYO (AP) — After years of searching, scientists and broadcasters say they have captured video images of a giant squid in its natural habitat deep in the ocean for the first time.


The three-meter (nine-foot) invertebrate was filmed from a manned submersible during one of 100 dives in the Pacific last summer in a joint expedition by Japanese public broadcaster NHK, Discovery Channel and Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science.






NHK released photographs of the giant squid this week ahead of Sunday’s show about the encounter. The Discovery Channel will air its program on Jan. 27.


The squid, which was inexplicably missing its two longest tentacles, was spotted in waters east of Chichi Island about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) south of Tokyo, NHK said. The crew followed it to a depth of 900 meters (2,950 feet).


Little is known about the creature because its harsh environment makes it difficult for scientists to conduct research. Specimens have washed ashore on beaches but never before have been filmed in their normal habitat deep in the ocean, researchers say.


Japanese zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera, who was on board the submersible at the time of the encounter, was able to lure the giant squid with a one-meter (three-foot) -long diamond squid.


All the lights from the submersible were turned off while they waited. At a depth of 640 meters (2,100 feet), the giant squid appeared and wrapped its arms around the bait, eating it for over 20 minutes before letting go.


“What we were able to gain from this experience was the moment of the giant squid attacking its prey — we were able record that,” said Kubodera, who has been researching the giant squid since 2002.


Other scientists involved in the expedition this summer, which logged 400 hours of dives, were American oceanographer and marine biologists Edith Widder and Steve O’Shea from New Zealand.


NHK said a high-definition camera was developed for the project that could operate deep in the ocean and used a special wavelength of light invisible to the giant squid’s sensitive eyes.


Kubodera said scientific research, technology and the right lure all came together to make the encounter possible, and that this case will shed more light on deep-sea creatures going forward.


After more than a decade of going out to sea in search of the giant squid, he relished the moment he came face-to-face with it.


“It appeared only once, out of 100 dives. So perhaps, after over 10 years of some kind of relationship I’ve built with the giant squids, I feel, perhaps, it was the squid that came to see me.”


___


Associated Press video journalist Emily Wang contributed to this report.


Science News Headlines – Yahoo! News





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Karzai's U.S. visit a time for tough talk




The last time Presidents Obama and Karzai met was in May in Kabul, when they signed a pact regarding U.S. troop withdrawal.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Afghan President Karzai meeting with President Obama in Washington this week

  • Felbab-Brown: Afghan politics are corrupt; army not ready for 2014 troop pullout

  • She says Taliban, insurgents, splintered army, corrupt officials are all jockeying for power

  • U.S. needs to commit to helping Afghan security, she says, and insist corruption be wiped out




Editor's note: Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book is "Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan."


(CNN) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is meeting this week with President Obama in Washington amid increasing ambivalence in the United States about what to do about the war in Afghanistan.


Americans are tired of the war. Too much blood and treasure has been spent. The White House is grappling with troop numbers for 2013 and with the nature and scope of any U.S. mission after 2014. With the persisting corruption and poor governance of the Afghan government and Karzai's fear that the United States is preparing to abandon him, the relationship between Kabul and Washington has steadily deteriorated.


As the United States radically reduces its mission in Afghanistan, it will leave behind a stalled and perilous security situation and a likely severe economic downturn. Many Afghans expect a collapse into civil war, and few see their political system as legitimate.


Karzai and Obama face thorny issues such as the stalled negotiations with the Taliban. Recently, Kabul has persuaded Pakistan to release some Taliban prisoners to jump-start the negotiations, relegating the United States to the back seat. Much to the displeasure of the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan government also plans to release several hundred Taliban-linked prisoners, although any real momentum in the negotiations is yet to take place.


U.S. may remove all triips from Afghanistan after 2014



Vanda Felbab-Brown

Vanda Felbab-Brown



Washington needs to be careful that negotiations are structured in a way that enhances Afghanistan's stability and is not merely a fig leaf for U.S. and NATO troop departure. Countering terrorism will be an important U.S. interest after 2014. The Taliban may have soured on al Qaeda, but fully breaking with the terror group is not in the Taliban's best interest. If negotiations give the insurgents de facto control of parts of the country, the Taliban will at best play it both ways: with the jihadists and with the United States.


Negotiations of a status-of-forces agreement after 2014 will also be on the table between Karzai and Obama. Immunity of U.S. soldiers from Afghan prosecution and control over detainees previously have been major sticking points, and any Afghan release of Taliban-linked prisoners will complicate that discussion.










Karzai has seemed determined to secure commitments from Washington to deliver military enablers until Afghan support forces have built up. The Afghan National Security Forces have improved but cannot function without international enablers -- in areas such as air support, medevac, intelligence and logistical assets and maintenance -- for several years to come. But Washington has signaled that it is contemplating very small troop levels after 2014, as low as 3,000. CNN reports that withdrawing all troops might even be considered.


Everyone is hedging their bets in light of the transition uncertainties and the real possibility of a major security meltdown after 2014. Afghan army commanders are leaking intelligence and weapons to insurgents; Afghan families are sending one son to join the army, one to the Taliban and one to the local warlord's militia.


With Afghan president's visit, nations' post-2014 future takes shape


Patronage networks pervade the Afghan forces, and a crucial question is whether they can avoid splintering along ethnic and patronage lines after 2014. If security forces do fall apart, the chances of Taliban control of large portions of the country and a civil war are much greater. Obama can use the summit to announce concrete measures -- such as providing enablers -- to demonstrate U.S. commitment to heading off a security meltdown. The United States and international security forces also need to strongly focus on countering the rifts within the Afghan army.


Assisting the Afghan army after 2014 is important. But even with better security, it is doubtful that Afghanistan can be stable without improvements in its government.


Afghanistan's political system is preoccupied with the 2014 elections. Corruption, serious crime, land theft and other usurpation of resources, nepotism, a lack of rule of law and exclusionary patronage networks afflict governance. Afghans crave accountability and justice and resent the current mafia-like rule. Whether the 2014 elections will usher in better leaders or trigger violent conflict is another huge question mark.


Emphasizing good governance, not sacrificing it to short-term military expediencies by embracing thuggish government officials, is as important as leaving Afghanistan in a measured and unrushed way -- one that doesn't jeopardize the fledgling institutional and security capacity that the country has managed to build up.


U.S. likely to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after NATO forces leave


Karzai has been deaf and blind to the reality that reducing corruption, improving governance and allowing for a more pluralistic political system are essential for Afghanistan's stability. His visit provides an opportunity to deliver the message again -- and strongly.


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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Vanda Felbab-Brown.






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Baseball Hall of Fame to render verdict on Steroid Era




















Jon Keller reports




















































Rank-and-file members of baseball’s Steroids Era – most notably Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa – finally were facing a jury Wednesday that would decide whether they are worthy of the Hall of Fame. The 2013 induction announcement is set for 1 p.m. Chicago time.

Their inclusion on this year’s ballot overshadowed those who were thought to have the best chance of being voted into baseball’s hallowed shrine in Cooperstown: former Chicago White Sox outfielder Tim Raines, the Houston Astros’ long-time duo of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell and All-Star pitcher Jack Morris.






Also in contention was former Chicago Cubs closer Lee Smith, who was on the ballot for the 11thtime.

This Hall of Fame eligible class has received more attention than most because of the inclusion of Bonds, who won seven MVP awards; Clemens, who won seven Cy Young awards and Sosa, the former Cub who won a National League MVP award after his famous 1998 home run duel with the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire.

McGwire, the only one of those who publicly has acknowledged using performance-enhancing drugs, has failed seven times in his Hall of Fame election bid. Former Cub Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive for a drug, has failed three times.

The so-called Steroids Era has caused division within the electorate, comprised of 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association. They historically have been very stingy with their votes, especially considering it takes 75 percent to be included in the summer induction ceremonies.

dvandyck@tribune.com

Twitter @davandyck




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