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    FCC Approves AT&T-BellSouth; Merger

    Late-Friday Vote Creates Telecom Giant Four Times Larger than Verizon

    As 2006 ticked to a close, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to deliver a Friday afternoon gift to mighty AT&T;, approving its $85 billion takeover of BellSouth, over the objections of consumer groups who said the merger delivered no benefits to consumers.

    Story continues below video

    It's a fondly-treasured Washington tradition to take actions likely to be unpopular with large segments of the electorate on a Friday afternoon, when they're least likely to be noticed. A Friday before a holiday weekend is even better.

    The commission's action followed last-minute concessions by AT&T; intended, although critics said some tricky legal language may end up costing consumers more in the end.

    It's the largest deal ever in U.S. telecommunications history. The new AT&T; will have a market capitalization of over $220 billion -- more than double that of Verizon. It will serve more than 70 million local phone customers in 22 states, as well as 10 million broadband users.

    Among other things, the merger gives AT&T; full control of Cingular Wireless, which it had operated as a joint venture with BellSouth. The company has said it will phase out the Cingular brand name, replacing it with the AT&T; brand.

    AT&T; also says it will aggressively roll out its new Internet video service in what was previously BellSouth territory. It plans to reach 19 million homes in its own 13-state region by the end of 2008.

    The 20-page list of concessions was delivered to the FCC late yesterday (Dec. 28) in the hope that the commission would vote on the merger before the end of the year.

    The merger talks had been stonewalled between the 2 Republican and 2 Democratic members of the commission who can vote. Robert McDowell, the fifth FCC commissioner, formally recused himself on the grounds that he once represented competitors of AT&T; as a lobbyist.

    Chief among the concessions was a promise to maintain standards of "net neutrality" on AT&T;'s broadband services for 30 months from the date of the merger approval.

    Net neutrality, the principle of maintaining free and equal access to all Internet content, was staunchly opposed by AT&T;, which wants to offer high-speed premium services and prioritize delivery of that content at the expense of its existing service.

    "[I]n the interest of facilitating the speediest possible approval of the merger by the Commission, Applicants agree to the attached merger commitments, which are significantly more extensive than those submitted on October 13," AT&T; said in its statement.

    Other concessions included a promise to reestablish 3,000 jobs in America that had been outsourced to other countries, and an offer of stand-alone DSL for $19.95 a month in BellSouth's territories.

    Consumer groups hailed the agreement as a victory that enables low-income neighborhoods to breach the digital divide, as well as for supporters of net neutrality overall.

    "This merger endangers long-term competition," said Consumers' Union vice president Gene Kimmelman. "But by making AT&T;'s high-speed Internet service available to consumers for less than $20 a month, the FCC could open the door for consumers to connect low-cost Internet telephone service to broadband and thereby pressure the market to keep delivering lower prices for all telecom services."

    Ben Scott, policy director of media watchdog Free Press, agreed.

    "Making Net Neutrality a condition of the largest merger in telecommunications history would set an important precedent," he said. "For free speech, democratic participation and economic innovation to thrive online, Net Neutrality must be the law."

    Bait And Switch?

    However, AT&T; may have pulled a fast one.

    In enumerating its net neutrality concession, AT&T; said that, "This commitment also does not apply to AT&T;/BellSouth's Internet Protocol television (IPTV) service."

    AT&T;'s push for IPTV is the cornerstone of its new UVerse high-speed Internet project, and the agreement may allow its UVerse rollout to sidestep its own net neutrality guarantee.

    Commenters at technology blog TechDirt noted that, "AT&T; promises not to violate network neutrality on a network they never intended to use that way, and carves out permission to use it on their new network, where they had planned all along to set up additional tollbooths."

    The AT&T; peace offering comes on the heels of the FCC's decision to ease rules for telecom companies to offer video franchising in communities. The new rules eliminate requirements for companies to "build out" service to all parts of a town or region, and streamlines the approval process.

    Critics charged the new rules will empower telecoms like AT&T; to "cherry pick" by selling high-speed broadband and TV services only in the most affluent neighborhoods.

    AT&T; reiterated its commitment to deliver high-powered services like UVerse in the concession letter.

    "AT&T; is committed to providing, and has expended substantial resources to provide, a broad array of advanced video programming services in the AT&T; in-region territory," the company said.

    FCC Approves AT&T-BellSouth Merger...
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    AT&T; Offers Net Neutrality Concessions To Win Merger Approval

    Some tricky legal language may end up costing consumers more in the end

    AT&T; has offered concessions to the FCC to sweeten the pot for approval of its mega-merger with BellSouth, but some tricky legal language may end up costing consumers more in the end.

    The 20-page list of offers was delivered to the FCC late yesterday (Dec. 28) in the hope that the commission would vote on the merger before the end of the year.

    The merger talks have been stonewalled between the 2 Republican and 2 Democratic members of the commission who can vote. Robert McDowell, the fifth FCC commissioner, formally recused himself on the grounds that he once represented competitors of AT&T; as a lobbyist.

    Chief among the concessions was a promise to maintain standards of "net neutrality" on AT&T;'s broadband services for 30 months from the date of the merger approval.

    Net neutrality, the principle of maintaining free and equal access to all Internet content, was staunchly opposed by AT&T;, which wants to offer high-speed premium services and prioritize delivery of that content at the expense of its existing service.

    "[I]n the interest of facilitating the speediest possible approval of the merger by the Commission, Applicants agree to the attached merger commitments, which are significantly more extensive than those submitted on October 13," AT&T; said in its statement.

    Other concessions included a promise to reestablish 3,000 jobs in America that had been outsourced to other countries, and an offer of stand-alone DSL for $19.95 a month in BellSouth's territories.

    Consumer groups hailed the agreement as a victory that enables low-income neighborhoods to breach the digital divide, as well as for supporters of net neutrality overall.

    "This merger endangers long-term competition," said Consumers' Union vice president Gene Kimmelman. "But by making AT&T;'s high-speed Internet service available to consumers for less than $20 a month, the FCC could open the door for consumers to connect low-cost Internet telephone service to broadband and thereby pressure the market to keep delivering lower prices for all telecom services."

    Ben Scott, policy director of media watchdog Free Press, agreed.

    "Making Net Neutrality a condition of the largest merger in telecommunications history would set an important precedent," he said. "For free speech, democratic participation and economic innovation to thrive online, Net Neutrality must be the law."

    Bait And Switch?

    However, AT&T; may have pulled a fast one.

    In enumerating its net neutrality concession, AT&T; said that, "This commitment also does not apply to AT&T;/BellSouth's Internet Protocol television (IPTV) service."

    AT&T;'s push for IPTV is the cornerstone of its new UVerse high-speed Internet project, and the agreement may allow its UVerse rollout to sidestep its own net neutrality guarantee.

    Commenters at technology blog TechDirt noted that, "AT&T; promises not to violate network neutrality on a network they never intended to use that way, and carves out permission to use it on their new network, where they had planned all along to set up additional tollbooths."

    The AT&T; peace offering comes on the heels of the FCC's decision to ease rules for telecom companies to offer video franchising in communities. The new rules eliminate requirements for companies to "build out" service to all parts of a town or region, and streamlines the approval process.

    Critics charged the new rules will empower telecoms like AT&T; to "cherry pick" by selling high-speed broadband and TV services only in the most affluent neighborhoods.

    AT&T; reiterated its commitment to deliver high-powered services like UVerse in the concession letter.

    "AT&T; is committed to providing, and has expended substantial resources to provide, a broad array of advanced video programming services in the AT&T; in-region territory," the company said.

    It remains to be seen if the concessions are enough to push the FCC to vote on the merger.

    AT&T Offers Net Neutrality Concessions To Win Merger Approval...
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    Study: Pet Owners Less Healthy

    You might think pet owners are peppy and active but it doesn't look that way

    A common perception is that the pet owner is a young person who is full of action, exercises a lot, and actively plays with a pet, particularly a dog. But a new study finds the reality is different.

    The University of Turku in Finland studied whether pet ownership was associated with health among Finns aged 20-54.

    At the total population level, pet ownership was most common among those 40 years of age or older, those whose lives are established and who are settled down as well as among those who live in single-family houses and who are in steady relationships.

    Pet ownership was slightly more often associated with a low rather than high social standing or education. Four of five people working in agriculture had a pet, while 41% of those in other occupations did.

    The study found that pet owners are part of the population group that based on their age or low socio-economic standing has plenty of different kinds of illness or disease-related risk factors, including a greater Body Mass Index (BMI) than the rest. In this study, they smoked slightly more often and exercised less often than those not having pets.

    Dog owners did exercise more than those not having a dog, but it did not have an effect on the BMI. Pet owners in general had hobbies associated with hunting or moving about in nature more often than the rest.

    Perceived health of pet owners was weak more often than that of those not having a pet. Illnesses, such as high blood pressure, blood pressure disease, diabetes, ulcer, sciatica, migraine, depression, and panic attacks were more common among them.

    Researchers said that socio-demographic background factors and risk factors explained the differences between the two groups.

    Motivating middle aged people, those belonging to lower social groups, and those living in the countryside to move about with their pets would likely have an impact on their health and reduction of illnesses.

    It may be assumed that exercising as a separate pursuit is an unlikely part of their free time activities in the way it is among more highly educated town people, the study found.

    The findings were published in PLoS ONE, the new international online publication of the Public Library of Science.



    Study: Pet Owners Less Healthy...
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      Women May Be Able to Take a Break From Osteoporosis Drug

      Women in study stopped for five years without problems

      Most postmenopausal women who took the osteoporosis drug alendronate for 5 years and then stopped did not have an increased risk for nonvertebral fractures in the next 5 years, suggesting the medication has a lasting effect, according to a study in the current issue of JAMA.

      Osteoporosis, common among postmenopausal women, is characterized by increased bone turnover (when aging bone is broken down faster than it can be replaced), progressive loss of bone mass and increased fracture risk.

      Bisphosphonates are the most commonly used medications for postmenopausal osteoporosis. Alendronate, a potent bisphosphonate, decreases bone turnover, increases bone mineral density (BMD), and decreases vertebral, nonspine, and hip fracture risk in women with osteoporosis.

      Treatment for osteoporosis often continues indefinitely, but few studies have examined the effects of using bisphosphonates longer than 5 years or the effects of stopping treatment after 5 years. Some studies have suggested that stopping treatment after several years might result in continued effectiveness because of a residual effect of the drug, but the magnitude and duration of this remains uncertain.

      The Fracture Intervention Trial (FIT), a randomized, blinded, placebo-controlled trial, examined the effect of daily alendronate on BMD and fracture risk in postmenopausal women with low BMD. Average follow-up during treatment was 3.8 years, with optional open-label treatment continuation after trial completion.

      In the article, Dennis M. Black, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues report data from the FIT Long-term Extension (FLEX), which was designed to evaluate the effects on BMD of either continuation of alendronate, 5 or 10 mg/d for a total of 10 years, or discontinuation after approximately 5 years.

      The researchers found that compared with continuing alendronate, switching to placebo for 5 years resulted in declines in BMD at the total hip (-2.4 percent) and spine (-3.7 percent), but average levels remained at or above pretreatment levels 10 years earlier.

      Similarly, those discontinuing alendronate had increased serum markers of bone turnover compared with continuing alendronate, but after 5 years without therapy, bone marker levels remained somewhat below pretreatment levels 10 years earlier.

      After 5 years, the cumulative risk of nonvertebral fractures was not significantly different between those continuing (19 percent) and discontinuing (18.9 percent) alendronate. Among those who continued, there was a 55 percent lower risk of clinically recognized vertebral fractures.

      " the BMD and bone marker changes suggest some residual effect from 5 years of alendronate treatment that is evident for at least 5 years after discontinuation," the authors write.

      "We conclude that continuation of alendronate for 10 years maintains bone mass and reduces bone remodeling compared with discontinuation after 5 years. The results confirm the safety of alendronate for up to 10 years including no increased fracture risk with long-term alendronate use.

      However, even among those who discontinued therapy after 5 years, BMD remained at or above baseline values 10 years earlier and bone turnover was still somewhat reduced. Discontinuation did not increase the risk of nonvertebral fractures or x-ray-detected vertebral fractures over the next 5 years, but the risk of clinically diagnosed vertebral fractures was significantly increased among those who discontinued.

      "These results suggest that for many women, discontinuation of alendronate after 5 years for up to 5 more years does not significantly increase fracture risk, but women at high risk of clinical vertebral fractures, such as those with vertebral fracture or very low BMD, may benefit by continuing beyond 5 years," the researchers write.



      Women May Be Able to Take a Break From Osteoporosis Drug...
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      Parents Still Clueless About Child Safety Seats

      December 28, 2006
      A study comes to the hardly surprising conclusion that parents are still confused by child safety seats.

      The new study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that too many parents are still not properly using the new safety LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) technology designed to better secure child safety seats to vehicles because of a lack of education about the system and how to use it.

      "LATCH was supposed to simplify child safety seat installation for parents and this study shows that isn't happening." said NHTSA Administrator Nicole R. Nason.

      LATCH is an installation system that was created to standardize the way child safety seats are attached to vehicles without having to use a seat belt. It consists of two lower attachments and an upper tether on a child safety seat that anchors and connects with lower anchors and a top tether built into a vehicle's back seat.

      When it became fully effective in September 2002, the agency had hoped LATCH would make child safety seats easier for parents to use.

      But the survey found that 40 percent of parents still rely on the vehicles' seat belts when installing their car seat. It also indicated many parents are unaware of the existence of or the importance of the tethers when securing the seat to the vehicle and only 55 percent of parents using the top tether.

      Nason said that as a result of the study, she intends to convene a meeting early next year of auto manufacturers, car seat manufacturers, retailers and consumer activists to discuss ways to make the safety system more efficient.

      "LATCH is an effective way to keep children restrained in a vehicle and safe in the event of a crash, and parents need to be better educated about it," said Nason. "We need to find a way to make the devices better known and easier to use."

      Parents Still Clueless About Child Safety Seats...
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      Microsoft Extends Xbox 360 Warranty to One Year

      Company Finally Responds to Rising Tide of Consumer Outrage

      Belatedly responding to a wave of consumer outrage over problems with its Xbox 360, Microsoft Corp. says it is extending the warranty from 90 days to one year from the date of purchase in the United States and Canada.

      In a statement, Microsoft said the change in "these territories" would make the Xbox warranty consistent with "most of the world."

      Sony PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii, both released late in the year, have been stealing Xbox 360's thunder. The Wii became a last-minute "must-have" gift as consumers became enthralled by its unusual motion-sensitive controller despite a strap that proved unable to stand up to heavy use.

      The Xbox 360, on the other hand, infuriated consumers with problems ranging from overheating to unexpected shutdowns. The company stonewalled consumers and reporters for months, insisting the problems were overstated.

      In August, an insider from Electronic Arts, Inc. said the failure rate of Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console is actually ten times higher than what Microsoft spokespeople had admitted. Game Daily BIZ, a gaming industry publication, reported that the anonymous source tallied that of the 300 consoles EA has received, 30-50 percent of them have failed.

      The outpouring of complaints coupled with the nonresponsive answers provided by Edelman, Microsoft's public relations agency, earned the Xbox 360 a spot on ConsumerAffairs.com's 12 Duds of Christmas list, keeping company with the likes of Kevin Trudeau, Martha Stewart and Girls Gone Wild.

      Microsoft finally responded late last week, announcing its new warranty policy Friday.

      "Customers who experience hardware issues with their Xbox 360 within one year of purchase can have their consoles repaired at no cost," the Microsoft statement said. The new warranty policy is retroactive, so consumers who may have already paid for an out-of-warranty Xbox 360 repair within one year of purchase will be eligible for reimbursement of their console repair charges.

      "Customers who have already paid out-of-warranty repair charges within their first year of ownership can expect reimbursement checks for the amount of their console repair in approximately 10 weeks," the company said. Microsoft said reimbursements will be automatically distributed, so customers need not contact Microsoft.

      The company said it has set up a Web site for customers who have questions or who experience hardware issues -- www.xbox.com/en-US/support/contact. The site answers questions about warranty status and contains troubleshooting tips and support information.

      Microsoft Extends Xbox 360 Warranty to One Year...
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      Gift Cards Becoming Currency For Criminals

      The $80-billion gift card market is a profitable one for retailers and banks and, some reports indicate, for criminals as well.

      Legitimate businesses make an estimated $8 billion or more on "dormancy" charges, service fees and abandoned cards, as consumers cheat themselves by failing to use their gift cards promptly.

      But that's just the most obvious source of profits. A number of reports claim that enterprising thieves are using gift cards for everything from fraudulent purchases to currency in transactions.

      Running The Numbers

      According to reports circulating recently, crooks will copy down the numbers of unclaimed gift cards hanging on store racks, wait for them to be activated, then use the gift cards to make online purchases.

      Law enforcement and the National Retail Federation mostly dismissed the scam as small-scale, noting that many store chains utilize additional protections before activating gift cards, such as keeping them behind the store counter or requiring scratch-off activation codes.

      According to unconfirmed reports, scammers simply go to stores or the vendor's Web site and enter the stolen numbers until one shows up with an unused balance.

      There's also the "grey market" of Internet auction sites, where stolen or bulk-purchased gift cards -- or card numbers -- can be resold for considerably more than their dollar value.

      The concern over gift card number copying has become so widespread that the Federal Trade Commission recently issued a consumer alert about it.

      Currency for Criminals

      A more disturbing scam involves criminal groups buying gift cards, preloading them with high dollar amounts, then exchanging them for drugs, guns, and so on.

      Crime crews favor using "open-ended" gift cards, such as those from banks and credit card issuers, due to the lack of preset spending limits.

      A report jointly issued by the Royal Canadian Mountain Police (RCMP), the U.S. Justice Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) outlined the growing use of gift cards as criminal currency.

      According to the RCMP, criminals will come to drug buys or exchanges loaded with dozens of gift cards that can total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

      The cards are especially attractive for international and cross-border trafficking because they circumvent the money reporting requirements for traveling between the United States and Canada, the RCMP said.

      What You Can Do

      Gift cards are enough of a scam as it is without buyers and retailers becoming pawns for criminals. Here are a few steps to ensure your card hasn't been misused:

      • Only buy cards from reputable stores and banks. Always ask for gift cards from behind the service counter. Don't buy cards off an open rack, and never from online auction sites of any kind.

      • Make sure the card hasn't been tampered with. Check any newly purchased gift card to ensure the "scratch-off" or removable activation label has not been removed. Check the balance regularly, and confirm it via phone with the card issuer before or after any transaction you make.

      • Stick with cash unless it's unavoidable. What's more tacky, really -- to give a friend or loved one a wad of cold hard cash, or a piece of plastic?

      After all, cash is a perfectly viable option if you don't know what to get someone for a gift, and it has much less in the way of hidden traps than your average gift card. Even bad gifts are generally better than gift cards -- at least there's regifting.

      Gift Cards Becoming Currency For Criminals...
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      FCC Plays Santa for AT&T;, Verizon

      Telecom-Backed Measure Bypasses Local Regulators

      As expected, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today voted to impose a new franchise system that makes it easier for AT&T; and Verizon to provide cable television service without seeking local government approval.

      By a 3-2 vote along party lines, the commission adopted the controversial measure, which gives local governments 90 days to decide whether to grant a new franchise to the telecom giants. It also eliminates a long-held policy that requires new entrants to provide service to all residents in an area.

      Critics said the measure was a political payback that would allow the telecom giants to "cherry-pick" neighborhoods, providing service in affluent areas while ignoring poorer areas or those more expensive to serve.

      "This is legislation disguised as regulation," said Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. He and Democrat Michael Copps voted against the measure.

      Adelstein ridiculed the telephone companies' argument that the local franchise process was an impediment to competition. He said there was not a single instance of a community failing to grant franchises to new entrants. FCC staff members admitted under questioning that he was correct.

      Nevertheless, chairman Kevin Martin hailed the new rule as providing "more competition through deregulation." Voting with Martin were fellow Republicans Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate.

      Martin insisted the new rules would help speed deployment of broadband Internet access. He said the telephone companies would be more likely to build new broadband networks if they were able to sell the full "triple play" of video, broadband and landline services.

      Martin and the telecoms have noted that there are at least 10,000 local communities with cable franchises in the U.S. and argued it would be too much trouble for the newcomers to submit to local regulation in all those localities, even though cable systems have done so since their founding.

      Opponents aren't likely to go away quietly. Local governments and the cable industry have indicated they will challenge the new rules in court, and Congress may weigh in as well.

      Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote Martin recently demanding to know what legislation granted the FCC the authority to essentially scrap a franchise system that has been in place for decades.

      Friends of AT&T; were quick to applaud the commission's action.

      "Consumers benefit whenever there is a second cable or wire into the home for cable or video service," said Samuel A. Simon, Chairman and founder of Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a Washington, D.C., organization that calls itself a consumer group.

      "It is clear that the incumbent cable operators have every incentive to delay competitive entry, and that they are using their influence at every level to achieve this goal," said Simon. "With these new rules, we believe consumers will now see a more rapid roll out of Verizon and AT&T; video services," he said.

      FCC Plays Santa for AT&T, Verizon...
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      Gift Cards an $8 Billion Gift to Retailers

      10 Percent of Cards' Value Never Redeemed


      Gift cards are a great gift, all right -- for the retailers who issue them. The National Retail Federation estimates that gift card sales will hit nearly $80 billion this year. About 10 percent of that amount -- $8 billion -- will stay right in retailers' pockets, thanks to fees, loopholes and consumer forgetfulness.

      Most consumers wouldn't think of paying for an item and leaving the store without it, but that's basically what happens with the 10 percent of gift card value that goes to waste each year.

      "We estimate the overall raw volume in gift cards this year to be (US)$80 billion," Brian Riley, senior analyst for bank cards with the Tower Group, told the E-Commerce Times. "Through dormancy fees and abandonment, unused funds will run about $8 billion."

      Home Depot and Best Buy each recently reported adding about $43 million to their bottom line from dormant cards.

      Despite that, as online shipping deadlines near, consumers stumped for gift-giving ideas are turning to the Internet to search for information on various branded gift cards, according to Hitwise, which tracks Internet search activity.

      Hitwise said the share of US Internet searches for "gift cards" surged 109 percent for the week ending December 16, 2006 versus the previous week as online shoppers looked for last-minute gift ideas. Some of the fastest-growing gift card related searches in that period were "american express gift cards," up 184 percent, "itunes gift card," up 69 percent, and "visa gift cards," up 19 percent.

      "For the second year now, weve seen a pattern of increased searches on gift cards as Christmas day approaches," said Bill Tancer general manager of global research at Hitwise. "This year branded credit and charge gift cards dominated top searches as gift givers opted for the most flexibility for their gift recipients."

      Cards Not All the Same

      There are two basic types of gift cards -- "open loop" cards carrying brands like Visa and MasterCard. They can be used at any establishment accepting that brand of card, and "closed loop" cards which must be used at a particular store, mall or group of retailers.

      Consumers have slightly more protection with the branded open loop cards because they are governed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which oversees banks, while closed loop cards are governed by state laws, which vary widely.

      Some states, for example, do not allow gift cards to expired, while others place limits on the "dormancy fees" that can be imposed if the card is not used in a specific period of time.

      Recipients' Attitudes

      Some cards tend to get used quickly, like fast-food and sit-down restaurant cards. But cards that must be used at a specific retailer often get set aside by consumers who are too busy to go shopping, have nothing they particularly want or -- in the case of many males -- simply hate going to stores.

      That's why Gettysburg College philosophy professor Steven Gimbel thinks even a bad gift is better than a gift card.

      "A bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes the bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought of a bad gift that counts," Gimbel said.

      Additionally, consumers are frequently unaware that the cards can expire and run up fees. Often, they simply throw the card in a drawer and forget about it.

      There are even cases of recipients who don't use the card, thinking that they are saving money for the person who gave them the card.

      A ConsumerAffairs.com editor gave an injured colleague a $600 Circuit City credit card so he could buy a new flat-screen TV to watch during his recuperation from a serious traffic accident but the recipient never used the card.

      "I thought you could use the money for something else," he explained months later when asked why he had not purchased the new TV.

      Many recipients lose the cards, not realizing that in most cases, losing the card is like losing cash. Since the cards are not registered, there is no way to get a replacement. Starbucks is a notable exception; it allows its gift cards to be registered so they can be replaced, minus a small fee, if lost or stolen.

      Gift Cards an $8 Billion Gift to Retailers...
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      Holiday Shoppers Running Up Debt


      Buy now, pay later. Much later, according to a new poll of holiday shoppers by Consumer Reports.

      According to the survey, 23% of Americans will not pay off their holiday debt until March or later, equaling $14.6 billion in interest-accruing debt.

      Over one-quarter of Americans (26%) use credit cards most often when holiday shopping, contributing to the $63.6 billion charged on credit cards throughout the shopping season.

      "Credit cards can be hazardous to your holiday spending," said Tod Marks, senior editor, Consumer Reports. "With the average household saddled with $9,000 in credit debt already, anything that significantly adds to that impost could be potentially devastating. Cash forces you to be much more disciplined, purchasing only what you can afford."

      The Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll also finds:

      • Among those using credit cards to pay for holiday gifts, 17% or more plan on accumulating $1,000 or more in holiday charges.

      • With little more than two weeks to go until Christmas, re-gifting becomes an attractive option. A noteworthy proportion of consumers (13%) are planning on re-gifting. Men are more likely to re-gift (17%) than women (10%).

      • After the holidays, 16% of consumers plan on returning some of the gifts they received. Men (21%) are more likely than women (12%) to return some of their gifts.

      • Shoppers, on average, will buy about 15 gifts for the holidays-married women will buy the most (19); about 40% more than their husbands (13).

      • As of December 10th, with only weeks left in the holiday shopping season, one-third of Americans had not even begun their holiday shopping.

      • 30% or 62 million shoppers say that they won't finish their holiday shopping until December 23rd or later. More than 1 in 10 shoppers (11%) don't anticipate finishing their holiday shopping until the evening of December 24th.

      Holiday Shoppers Running Up Debt...
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      "Angels From God:" Stories of Organ Donation

      Arresting stories tell both sides of the transplant drama

      In 2004, the Department of Health and Human Services convened the Women's Summit on Organ Donation in Washington, D.C. The conference brought together scientists, surgeons, volunteers, academics and researchers ... and also a few organ-donor families and recipients.

      Perhaps the two most arresting stories were told by two Washington-area women, both profoundly affected by organ donation. These are their stories, in their words:

      Suzanne Eckler, Gloria Brooks

      Suzanne: My husband Bobby kissed me good-bye on his way to work. Later that afternoon he suffered a massive brain aneurysm. He was only 59. That night we decided to donate his organs. I wasn't ready to let him go and felt that by donating his organs, somehow he would still be here.

      Gloria: I received a liver transplant in 1992. At the time I became ill I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in a demanding, stressful position. The cause of my illness was unknown. The doctors suspected a rare form of Hepatitis A that simply destroyed my liver. My kids, 6 and 9, were told I would not be returning home. My family was told I would probably not survive even with the transplant.

      Suzanne: It was November 18, 1992. Little did I ever think that morning was the last time I would see my husband alive. At 4:10 he called and said, "What are we going to do this evening?" I said, "Let's go out to eat." He said, "No, let's get a video and eat in."

      At 6:10, I got a phone call while at exercise class. They said my husband was at George Washington University Hospital. I thought, how could he be? He had never had a sick day in his life. He had just had his physical three weeks earlier and the doctor said that if all his patients were as healthy as Bobby, he'd be out of business.

      I thought it might be a stroke and that we'd make it through somehow. When I got to GW, the doctors said he had an aneurysm and had collapsed at work. The prognosis wasn't good.

      I walked into the room and he was heavily sedated -- motionless, with big pads on his eyes. I was speechless I didn't know what to say. A little later, a nurse asked me to leave. I knew something had happened.

      I went into the waiting area and watched the doctors and nurses scurry up and down. They called my husband's doctor "stat." My heart sank to the floor. Finally, a doctor walked towards me. He looked at me and said my husband had had another aneurysm.

      "There was nothing we could do, it destroyed his brain stem," he said. That doctor never stopped walking, never looked me in the eye, never took my hand. He just kept walking.

      Finally, a young nurse came up and took my hand. She asked if I had ever considered organ donation. I remembered a commercial from TV and the music that went with it. Bobby and I had never talked about organ donation. We'd never even talked about dying. He had just had his 59th birthday a few days before.

      I looked at my children and said, "Why don't we?" My son agreed but my daughter didn't.

      "No way," she said. "I don't want anybody cutting up my dad."

      "Oh, but just think -- it would mean that he would still be walking the earth in some way," I said, and she finally agreed.

      We stayed with him that night because they had to keep everything hooked up and going. The next morning, we met with the organ procurement person. A priest was there with us. There was a big long checklist and when we got to the liver, I said, "I don't think you'll want his liver -- my husband was a big party guy and it's probably not in very good shape."

      When we were finished, the priest hugged me. "I don't know if I could have done that," he said. All I could think of was that it was November and we would have to get through the holidays somehow.

      Several weeks dragged by and we hadn't heard anything. We got a letter from the eye bank. It said his corneas had been transplanted into two women who had been blind but now had sight again.

      A week before Christmas, we got a letter and a pin. It said his kidneys had been successfully transplanted into two gentlemen and his liver had been transplanted into a young woman with two young children who had been very near death.

      I cried and cried. It was the best present I could have gotten.

      My husband left me with two fabulous children. They were very interested in what was happening. So I wrote to the transplant consortium and got very close to them. I learned a little about the person who had received Bobby's liver. My daughter wanted to write to the recipients and let them know a little about her dad. We checked with the consortium and got their approval.

      When we got the response from the young woman who had received Bobby's liver, it was more like a book than a letter. It was one of the warmest, most touching things I have ever read. I put it down and said, "Thank you, God."

      We had become active in the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium and after awhile, they put out a brochure with my husband's story. It also had "Gloria's story." I read it and knew that it was "my" Gloria.

      A few months later we were at a consortium meeting at a local church and a ray of light was coming through a stained glass window and shining down on a young woman with cornrows. Gloria had told us she wore her hair in cornrows and I just knew that it was her. Later, I introduced myself and we both just fell apart.

      It was so powerful. It really became real to me that my husband still walks the earth. He impacted the lives of five people and they impacted the lives of many more. It was definitely the best decision I ever made.

      Gloria has been very close to our family ever since. When my daughter was married, it was Gloria who danced with her for the daddy's dance.

      Gloria: My story also began in November 1992. I was working at the EPA. My job was demanding and very stressful. When I became ill, I didn't realize it at first because I had never been really sick.

      When my liver started to fail, I was just extra tired, not in pain. I didn't consider myself sick. My energy level just kept falling.

      I went to my HMO and told them I needed a B12 shot or something. They took blood tests and said they suspected a low-grade Hepatitis A. The doctor said it wasn't a big deal but told me not to go back to work. "Go home and get some rest," he said.

      So I went home. The next thing I remember, I woke up 6 to 8 weeks later in the hospital. They told me that when I went home and lay down, as the doctor had told me to do, I went into a coma. Nobody knew what was wrong. Initially, I was taken to the emergency room, then transferred to another hospital.

      I wound up at Washington Hospital Center. They said we know she is having liver failure but it's so acute there's nothing we can do. They said I wouldn't live through the night.

      A nurse approached my husband and told him they were doing liver transplants at Howard University Hospital and maybe I could go there. Howard was very responsive. They came over and got me and started extensive lab work. They said my liver had completely failed. All my organs had started to shut down and without a transplant by the next morning, I would be dead.

      After a brain scan, the doctors said I would probably be a vegetable, even with a transplant. They said it would be a waste of a liver.

      "If she's a vegetable I will take the vegetable home," my husband said. The next morning, my family came to the hospital expecting to have the life support turned off because the doctors said I was brain-dead. Then they got a notice of a potential donor. They did another brain scan, then a third one and that time they found minimal activity, enough to proceed. Meanwhile, my children were called in by the hospital chaplain who told them their mother would pass away and would never come home again. There was simply nothing to prepare them for that.

      Well, on the 19th they did the transplant. It was touch-and-go. Everything shut down during surgery. I was in total organ failure. My kidneys had to be stimulated and I had a stroke on my right side during the surgery.

      So when I woke up 6 to 8 weeks later, I was partly paralyzed and there were tubes everywhere. Now, when all of this started it was November, so I'm thinking about getting out of the hospital and getting my family's Thanksgiving turkey. Then there are all these people telling me I have another liver.

      When I fully realized I couldn't move my right side, I became very confused. One of the doctors brought in a blackboard and was telling me all the medicines I would have to take for the rest o my life. I'd never even taken a vitamin up to that time, so it took a while for it all to sink in.

      At that point, I realized that if I had someone else's liver, then that meant that someone else had died. So many attitude changed from defiance to guilt, sorrow, confusion. I became very hard to deal with. Ask my husband. He is gray now. He wasn't gray when I went to sleep. He had aged 10 years in a few weeks. My children were afraid to approach me.

      Then I said, oh my God someone else's family is going through the same thing, only worse. Their loved one never woke up at all.

      So why, I asked, am I still living and someone else is gone? Who would do this for a complete stranger? This plagued me for a long time. I got adjusted to the meds, I had to have physical therapy for the paralysis, and I was in danger of rejection for at least a year. Any infection, I could die. It was just one thing after another.

      My life changed 360 degrees, just like that.

      I became involved with the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium and was active with them in making people aware of organ and tissue donation. It was the same program Suzie referred to.

      I went to a donor appreciation ceremony, but I didn't know "my" family would be there. I had been corresponding with Melissa (the daughter). I remember when WRTC asked my permission to send me Melissa's letter. I thought, why do they need my permission after what they've done for me?

      Melissa was very candid. She said she was not in favor of cutting up her daddy and having people take his organs, and I understood that. But if there was some other little girl that maybe her daddy could somehow save from the pain she was feeling, it would be worth it for her.

      I cried continuously. I read it over and over. It took me a while to write back because I was just learning to write again. So it took me a while to write that book.

      I told her if one little girl could not feel that pain that she was feeling, that one little girl was saved. I have two children. My daughter was a Thanksgiving baby and she was 6 at that time. For the rest of her life, her birthday and Thanksgiving would have been the day that her mother died. It would never be a day of celebration. So I told her that you did do that for some little girl, you saved that little girl.

      I felt that Melissa was with me all the time. I knew at the ceremony that the room was full of donor families and I just wanted to be there with them. When I recognized them, the cloud of guilt that I had been feeling was released from me.

      Suzie embraced me so and it made me feel that it was OK for me to continue to live. I had felt so bad that she had lost her husband and I was walking around with his liver. But when she gave me her permission to be OK, ever since then I have been.

      My pledge to her is that I will always take care of this liver so I can pass it along to somebody else someday. When she asked me to represent Bobby at Melissa's wedding, I was so proud and honored.

      When I got there -- to Melissa's wedding -- I can't even tell you what happened. When I'm in the room with the Ecklers I don't ever see anybody else.

      Melissa didn't know I was there until it was time for the father-daughter dance and I stepped over to her. I can't tell you what song it was, how long the dance lasted, all I can tell you is I felt like I was on Cloud 9 holding that child to me. When we embraced each other, it made everything OK.

      It's not great to be a liver transplant recipient. There's so much to focus on but when I see the Ecklers, all those problems go away. I feel extremely blessed because it has allowed me to know people that, to me, are angels from God.

      These people think with their hearts. Their love and acceptance of me is unconditional and I felt that from the moment I met them.

      My children now are 18 and 21 and I am so blessed to be here and to have people like Suzie in my life.

      Tina Sauerhammer, M.D.

      Ms. Sauerhammer, 22, was Miss Wisconsin and was the 2nd runner-up in the Miss America contest.

      When I was 7 my father was diagnosed with Wagner's Disease, an autoimmune disorder. Five years ago, he developed renal failure. He was on dialysis three times a week and had no quality of life. It took a financial toll as well. He had to retire at 40.

      My father waited for four years for a kidney transplant. After all that waiting, he passed away because no organ became available.

      When I first competed for the Miss Wisconsin title, one of the nights my parents were at the competition supporting me, they missed a possible organ donation because he was at the pageant and didn't get the phone call in time.

      So I saw this as a way to get the message out. My goal was to become Miss America to give organ donation a national platform. Even though I didn't get the title, I got to share my father's story on national television and many people have told me they have signed up as organ donors as a result.

      My father died on his 45th birthday. When I heard Suzanne and Gloria, it really touched my heart. He won't be there for my father-daughter dance but this has been wonderful because I've been able to share his story. Even though he's not here with me I know there are lives out there being saved because of our efforts.


      The conference brought together scientists, surgeons, volunteers, academics and researchers ... and also a few organ-donor families and recipients....
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      Organ and Tissue Facts

      One organ donor can help up to 50 people

      A few significant facts about organ donation: 


      • Every 14 minutes, a new name is added to the transplant waiting list.

      • Every day, 17 Americans will die because organs were not donated in time to save their lives.

      • One donor can save or enhance the quality of life for up to 50 people.

      • Tissues such as corneas, bone, skin and heart valves can be donated up to 24 hours after death occurs.

      • Organs can survive for only a limited time outside the body. Hearts and lungs must be transplanted within four hours. All other organs must be transplanted within 24 hours.

      • Transplantation is the only life-saving cure for end-stage organ failure. About 90% of all transplant recipients regain their health completely, and can return to work or school, marry and even have children.

      • Organ transplantation was first performed in the 1950's. (2004 was the 50th anniversary of the kidney transplant between identical twins Ronald and Richard Herrick in 1954.) New technologies and drugs have resulted in the increased success or heart, liver, kidney and lung transplants as well as pancreas and small intestine.

      Source: The Center for Donation and Transplant, Albany, New York.



      Organ and Tissue Facts: A few significant facts about organ donation. Including information on the transplant waiting list, how many lives a donor can save...
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      Transplant Timeline

      Milestones of organ transplantation

      Some of the milestones of organ transplantation: 


      1906 - First corneal transplant
      1908 - Skin allograft
      1918 - Blood transfusion
      1954 - Kidney transplanted from identical twin
      1962 - First kidney transplant from a deceased donor
      1966 - First kidney-pancreas transplant
      1968 - First heart-lung transplant
      1983 - FDA approves cyclosporin, providing increased survival and improved quality of life
      1983 - Single lung transplant
      1989 - Living-related lung transplant
      1968 - Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA)
      1969 - First organ procurement program to improve kidney matching
      1984 - National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA)
      1986 - UNOS gets contract to run organ database
      2000 - HHS Final Rule - established regulatory framework for OPTN

      Today, UNOS operates a nationwide 24/7 organ match and placement service, while OPTN maintains the national listing of all patients.



      Transplant Timeline: Milestones of organ transplantation. Includes the years of the main breakthrough milestones in organ transplantation....
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      Times Says Eli Lilly Camouflaged Drug Side Effects

      Did Eli Lilly sweep concerns about its schizophrenia drug Zyprexa under the rug?

      Did Eli Lilly sweep concerns about its schizophrenia drug Zyprexa under the rug? The New York Times claims it did, though the company insists it did not.

      In a weekend story, the Times cited hundreds of internal company documents and emails suggesting that Lilly spent ten years trying to gloss over the drug's side effects.

      The documents, which the Times said it received from a lawyer representing patients who took the drug, seem to suggest the company withheld important information from doctors about Zyprexa's links to obesity and its tendency to raise blood sugar.

      Zyprexa is a top money-maker for Lilly, with sales of $4.2 billion last year. More than two million people worldwide took the drug in 2005.

      "We believe it is critical to physicians and patients that Lilly state some important and relevant facts about our lifesaving medication Zyprexa that are missing from the New York Times article," said Steven Paul, M.D., Lilly's executive vice president of science and technology.

      "First, contrary to incorrect statements in the Times article, Lilly has conducted more than 23 years of research on Zyprexa. And in the last ten years that the drug has been on the market, Lilly, government bodies such as the National Institute of Mental Health, and competitors -- in numerous studies that sought to show a causal link to Zyprexa and diabetes -- have not found that Zyprexa causes diabetes."

      Zyprexa was approved by the FDA in 1996 and the company said it has been used by more than 20 million people worldwide.

      The drug is widely prescribed to deal with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The company insists the drug is of enormous benefit to when accompanied by appropriate labeling regarding benefits and risks.

      "From the day that Zyprexa was approved, the labeling provided to physicians identified the potentially clinically-significant weight gain that was observed in more than half of all patients treated long-term with Zyprexa, as well as the diabetes-related adverse events observed in clinical trials," Paul said.



      Times Says Eli Lilly Camouflaged Drug Side Effects...
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      Bad Gift Better Than Gift Card, Says Philosopher


      If you're about to run out and pick up a gift card for that last hard-to-shop-for person on your list, you may want to consider trying to buy a bad gift instead. So says Gettysburg College philosophy professor Steven Gimbel.

      Whatever you do, don't buy a gift card, he advises.

      Gimbel says he discourages last-minute shoppers from purchasing gift cards because they primarily serve as an easy way out when the shopper is stumped for ideas.

      "To avoid giving bad gifts, people have turned more and more to gift cards," Gimbel said. "More stylish than the awkwardly sized paper gift certificate, the new plastic versions are gaining currency as an acceptable alternative to shopping. But does this really avoid the problems of the poorly executed present? No."

      Especially at this time of year, Gimbel says people need to remember why they are giving a gift. People are often fearful that despite their good intentions, a loved one will be disappointed with their gift, so they opt instead to buy a gift card with a predetermined monetary value that allows the recipient to "get what they want."

      "Giving a good gift is a very difficult task because it requires thought on several different levels. To start, there is the care that gives rise to the desire to give the gift," Gimbel said. "A good gift is also something that the recipient will use to make their life better and something someone wants."

      "There is no greater success than seeing wide eyes and hearing, 'How did you know?' A great present is one that displays an unspoken intimacy," he said.

      Gimbel's advice? Shoot to give a good gift -- not a gift card -- even if your gift ends up to be a bad one.

      "A bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes the bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought of a bad gift that counts," Gimbel said.

      "The gift card is about the giver, not about the recipient. It sends the message that happiness is to be found in acquiring the things you want, not in being close to people who care about you -- even if the people close to you do not really know you," Gimbel said.

      "When you give a gift that plays to someone's personality, the gift says, 'I don't quite get it, but I know it's important to you and I want you to know I am happy to try to nurture that aspect of your life.'"

      Bad Gift Better Than Gift Card, Says Philosopher...
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      Whether Zip or Flex, Car Sharing Is On the Rise


      Owning a car in a city can be an aggravating, annoying and troublesome headache. After all, there's almost no parking and insurance is usually at least double. Fender benders, even when the car is parked, happen weekly and at some point, the car will be vandalized, stolen or otherwise rendered completely unusable or charred.

      But luckily, with the advent of shared car companies, urbanites no longer have to worry about all that car craziness.

      Zipcar and its rival, Flexcar, are companies that work on the premise of shared cars. Essentially, there are cars parked throughout various cities that members can rent up to a few minutes before they need one. The rental includes the car, fuel, insurance and the peace of mind that there is a parking spot waiting for the user when he or she returns the car.

      The rental for both companies is an hourly rate of $9 or $65 daily before taxes. Although it seems like a lot of money, in reality the majority of city dwellers will save money using these companies, assuming they use public transportation for the bulk of their daily in-town errands.

      I had a car when I first moved to D.C. and the best decision I've made this year, other than taking a job with ConsumerAffairs.com, was to sell my jalopy.

      I am a disc jockey on the weekends and use Zipcar to haul my equipment. I also occasionally use Zipcar to cover stories for ConsumerAffairs.com outside the D.C. area. But other than that, I use public transportation or taxis to get around the city.

      Cheaper Than Insurance

      In a typical month I rent a Zipcar three times, usually for a whole day each time. During that same month I'll spend about $60 on public transportation. So that means I spend a little more than $270 per month on all my transportation after D.C.'s 10 percent sales tax. That's less than the $400 per month I was quoted for car insurance, not to mention car payments, depreciation, maintenance, fuel, a parking pass, registration and time wasted circling the block looking for a place to park, not to mention the parking tickets that are as unavoidable as pollen and as expensive as a round of allergy shots.

      It's very simple to join. All I did was go online, fill out a registration form, pay $25 for a registration fee (which is usually waived), and then pay a $50 per year membership fee.

      Within two days I received a confirmation e-mail saying I could either pick up my member card at their downtown office or have them mail it to me. The next day I was off and driving.

      Renting the car is a cinch as well. Most members go online to do it, but rentals can also be made by phone. I've used both but prefer to do it online because it's quicker. All I do is go to the website, put in my login info and I'm right into the rental screen.

      From there I choose a nearby car. There are about 10 that are less than a block from my apartment and about 30 that are a short walk away. If I want to pick up a car from my office, there are about five within a few blocks.

      I have lots of options when it comes to the vehicle I want: economy, hybrid, sporty, van, hatchback, convertible, SUV and pickup truck. There are many modern makes and models. The majority of cars are priced at the base rate of $9 per hour. But a few of the sporty cars, such as the Volvo S40, Mini and BMW 325 cost between $11 per hour and $13.

      After I've found the car I want, I put in when I will be picking it up and when I will be returning it. From there it stores my reservation. If I need to change or cancel the reservation, I can do so up to a few minutes before.

      Once I'm ready to drive, I walk up to the car, place my magnetized membership card next to a card reader located on the windshield and the car unlocks. Should the car need to be refueled while I'm driving, I pull up to any electronic gas pump and pay using a credit card located in the driver side sun visor. As a courtesy rule, we never leave the next driver with less than a quarter of a tank.

      When I'm ready to return the car, I park it where I picked it up, place my card back over the reader and it locks. If I need to get back in the car, I can unlock it at any time until my time is up.

      Should I need more time on my rental, I can call in and extend it or use my laptop to do so. However, if the car is already scheduled to be rented by another individual after me, then it's imperative to get the car back because it's $50 per each half hour that the car is late. That happened to me once. I was an hour late and man did it hurt when my I got my credit card statement.

      If I'm ever the individual on the other end of that mishap (it hasn't happened to me yet), I can call into Zipcar and have the rental transferred to another nearby vehicle or get a refund.

      Catching On

      Many urbanites are catching onto the fiscal and stress-related benefits of sharing cars rather than owning them. Flexcar has "tens of thousands" of members and experienced a 100 percent growth last year, said John Williams, Flexcar spokesman.

      Zipcar's spokesperson could not be reached for comment. However, a recent survey conducted by Zipcar and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority revealed a decrease in car ownership while 53 percent of those surveyed said that joining Zipcar has delayed their decision to buy a new car

      When it comes to choosing which company to join, check their websites. Both have comparable services and prices, but chances are, one has more cars in your neighborhood. I chose Zipcar because there are five cars in the alley behind my apartment and many more within a block or two. Flexcar, which was the first to serve D.C., has eight within about seven blocks.

      It's worth nothing that the companies are not in all the same cities. Flexcar is found exclusively in many West Coast cities, while Zipcar is in many East Coast cities and London.

      For city dwellers, car sharing is a must-have. The few friends I have who own cars, either need them because they work in one of the rare D.C. areas that are not served by public transportation, or, in most cases, simply out of pride. They say they can't imagine life without a car. Well, I can't imagine wasting money on one.

      Whether Zip or Flex, Car Sharing Is On the Rise...
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      Pie in the Sky? Grand Canyon Skywalk Not for Acrophobics

      Grand Canyon Skywalk Not for Acrophobics

      Ever feel like stepping off a really big cliff -- like, say, the Grand Canyon? A $30 million structure, funded entirely by a Las Vegas businessman, will make that possible by St. Patrick's Day.

      David Jin, who hails from Shanghai, suggested the pie-in-the-sky idea to the Hualapai tribe 10 years ago and offered to pay for it himself. Though the Native Americans will own it, Jin's take isn't bad: half the money from the sale of $25 tickets for the next 25 years.

      Jin, who already brings Chinese visitors onto the Hualapai reservation, believes the appropriately-named Skywalk will greatly increase the annual average of 345,000 visitors who come to the tribe's corner of the canyon. From there, visitors can gaze toward Grand Canyon National Park, which draws 4.1 million visitors annually and has occasional problems with crowd control.

      The entrance to the national park lies 90 miles east of the Skywalk construction site.

      Built to survive winds of 100 miles per hour, Skywalk will be capable of holding hundreds of people at once; built-in shock absorbers will keep it from gyrating. Though open to the sky, the structure will feature glass walls and a glass floor that will allow unprecedented views of the canyon floor, 4,000 feet below.

      The mighty Colorado River will be little more than a brown ribbon from the horseshoe-shaped overlook, which stretches 70 feet beyond the canyon's edge but features steel support beams buried 46 feet deep into the limestone ledge.

      The distance from the canyon floor to the base of the futuristic Skywalk is more than double the height of the tallest buildings on the planet. That should be enough to seduce curious sightseers but is also enough to ruffle the feathers of tribal elders who say construction violates sacred land.

      Hualapai archaeological and burial sites dot the vicinity of the Skywalk and may be the reason some workers on the project suffer from nightmares, according to local critics. Tribal legend contends that the original Hualapai emerged from the earth of the Grand Canyon.

      The canyon that giveth also taketh away: a seven-month attempt to run a casino collapsed in 1995 and the tribe's river rafting and horseback riding concessions can't compete with those within the national park.

      Even a publicity stunt by daredevil Robby Knievel, who jumped a side canyon in his motorcycle, didn't provide the impetus needed to overcome poverty and unemployment on among the Hualapai. More than a third of the tribe's 2,200 members don't earn enough income per year to peek above the poverty line.

      Competing for gamblers with Las Vegas, two-and-a-half hours away, may have been a bad gamble but supporters are betting on a different outcome for Skywalk -- something no one else offers. Paving the 21-mile reservation entrance road would help.

      A transparent structure invisible from the national park, the Skywalk project has no complaints from the Grand Canyon Trust. And it has a world of potential, offering views unavailable from any vantage point in the national park. Construction time will be just under two years when Skywalk opens in March. The project is expected to increase employment and raise revenues that the tribe can spend on health, education, and welfare for its members.



      Pie in the Sky? Grand Canyon Skywalk Not for Acrophobics...
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      Timeshare Tips for Travelers

      Most Americans know next-to-nothing about timeshares

      Travel-savvy consumers need to consider timeshares as a viable alternative to rising hotel bills. So says Lisa Schreier, author of "Timeshare Vacations for Dummies" and "Surviving a Timeshare Presentation."

      Most Americans know next-to-nothing about timeshares, she says, and are therefore afraid to investigate. The Orlando-based author lists nine things potential buyers should know:

      1. If things seem too good to be true, they usually are. Avoid salesmen who use the words "free," "perfect," "always," and/or "never."

      2. Don't believe the hype. Location is key; people interested in trading for different locations in peak season (i.e. the French Alps in the winter, Hilton Head in the summer) need to own a timeshare in an area with year-round high demand, such as Las Vegas or Orlando.

      3. Never assume anything. Most timeshares are deeded in perpetuity, others are not, and some operate on a "points-based" system that is not inflation-proof. Ask questions and don't be afraid to say "no."

      4. Keep an open mind. If you are going to a timeshare presentation for the gift (usually dinner, cash, or theme park tickets) and because you are required to go in order to receive the discounted hotel room, allow the salesperson to do his or her job.

      5. Don't purchase a timeshare as a real-estate investment. Even if the timeshare is deeded, it should not be considered a financial investment but an investment in your future vacations.

      6. Do your homework ahead of time. Have some general ideas about timeshare and be truthful about how much you spend for vacation accommodations.

      7. Don't cave in to high-pressure sales techniques. Make sure you understand the product and/or resort and be sure you would use it if you bought it.

      8. Focus on the long-term; you will not be saving money in the short term. Hotel rates will rise every year, while your timeshare cost is generally locked in.

      9. Compare apples to apples when considering cost and value. Even if you don't save money over the long term, you will be having a better vacation in a two-bedroom villa at a quality resort as opposed to a hotel room measuring 400 square feet. According to Schreier, the average cost of a two-bedroom timeshare in 2006 was $15,500. Renting a $200 hotel room for one week would cost $1400 even before taxes were added, the timeshare would pay for itself in less than 10 years, depending upon how fast the hotel rates increased.

      "Go back two or three years and determine how much you spent for your hotel, motel, or condo," says Schreier, "and don't forget the hidden room tax.

      "On top of that, you can't trade hotel rooms but you can trade timeshares. Most, if not all, timeshare resorts allow you to exchange or trade off to other member resorts."



      Timeshare Tips for Travelers...
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