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    Shareholder Suit Filed Against Transocean Directors

    Alleges executives' statements served to artificially inflate stock price

    By Jon Hood

    July 11, 2010
    The directors of Transocean, the offshore drilling company implicated in the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are facing a class action lawsuit from the company's shareholders, who claim the directors artificially inflated the company's stock price by making rosy statements about its safety record.

    The suit, brought this week in Harris County, Texas, says that between August 2009 and now, the directors claimed "they had remedied the company's past safety problems and were closely monitoring the company's operating equipment," an unfortunate choice of words given what occurred on April 20.

    The suit also says the directors inaccurately claimed that Transocean's blowout preventers (BOPs) -- which have since been implicated in the spill -- were operating normally, and that past BOP-related problems were "anomalies."

    BOPs are designed to forestall a catastrophic explosion by closing off pipes when they develop an uncontrollable pressure buildup. The BOPs on the Deepwater Horizon failed to work properly, worsening the massive oil spill that continues to this day.

    "Over the last ten years, defendants have -- on several occasions -- been apprised of the serious hazards associated with Transocean's use of certain BOPs on ultra-deepwater drilling engagements," the suit says. "Despite these warnings and defendants' knowledge that a BOP failure would likely result in scores of fatalities and millions of gallons of oil being released into the surrounding waters, defendants concealed their knowledge of these known hazards."

    The suit contains a litany of warning signs that it says Transocean failed to heed. According to the complaint, in 2000 BP issued a "notice of default" relating to problems with the BOPs installed on Transocean's Discovery Enterprise rig. Then, in 2003, a Transocean director co-wrote a study "warning...that the industry was not taking the time necessary to find and fix the problems that commonly plagued BOPs," according to the suit.

    Additionally, in 2005 and 2006, Great Britain's Health and Safety Executive issued two citations to the company for BOP-related deficiencies. Finally, the suit cites a 2008 paper, co-written by a Transocean manager, warning that "BOP shear rams may also have difficulty shearing today's high-strength, high-toughness drillpipe."

    The suit notes the serious toll that the disaster has taken on Transocean's stock. "As the truth about the full extent of this disaster was absorbed by the market over the two weeks following the explosion and oil spill, Transocean shares fell by $25.69 per share, closing at $66.34 on May 10, 2010," the complaint reads, adding that "[t]he Company's reputation continues to be materially harmed" and that Transocean stock "currently trades for around $50 per share."

    The defendants include Transocean President and COO Steven Newman, Chairman of the Board Robert Rose, and ten of the company's directors. The suit charges them with breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, abuse of control, gross mismanagement, and waste of corporate assets.

    The suit is just the latest bad news for Transocean. The company already faces dozens of other suits related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and Moody's Investor Service on Thursday downgraded its credit outlook from "stable" to "negative." Although the company isn't currently paying any of the cleanup-related costs, it may be forced to do so in the future.

    Shareholder Suit Filed Against Transocean Directors...

    Adobe Acrobat, Flash Vulnerable To Cybercriminals

    Universal nature of programs makes them attractive targets

    By Mark Huffman

    June 11, 2010
    Avoiding computer viruses and malware isn't nearly as easy as it used to be. Cybercriminals are staying two or three steps ahead, often exploiting vulnerabilities in popular software programs.

    Two of the most popular programs -- Abobe Acrobat Reader and Adobe Flash -- are so common they are used across multiple platforms, by computers running Windows, Linux and Apple systems. So it's not surprising that hackers have worked hard to find ways to exploit vulnerabilities in those softwares to load malware onto consumers' computers.

    "It is becoming more and more common for cybercriminals to exploit vulnerabilities in Adobe's software -- so it would be a very good idea for everyone to update vulnerable computers as soon as possible," said Graham Cluley, a security specialist at Sophos Security, a software company.

    Flash vulnerabilities

    Adobe this week acknowledged that some versions of Flash, the plug-in that allows video and other animated graphics to be embedded in Web pages, has problems.

    "Critical vulnerabilities have been identified in Adobe Flash Player version and earlier," the company posted in a security alert. "These vulnerabilities could cause the application to crash and could potentially allow an attacker to take control of the affected system."

    Adobe recommends users of Adobe Flash Player and earlier versions update to Adobe Flash Player Adobe said users of Adobe AIR and earlier versions update to Adobe AIR

    Interestingly, the Apple iPad does not support Flash, with CEO Steve Jobs taking a critical public posture against the software. Though Jobs did not specifically site security concerns with Flash, he criticized its stability and complained that it was prone to crashing.

    Problems with Acrobat

    Meanwhile, there are also problems in Adobe's Acrobat Reader, the software that allows documents to be viewed on any computer. Security experts say two exploits in particular, Pdfka and Pidief, now make up nearly half of all detected malware exploits on the Web. These vulnerabilities most recently threatened computer users in the form of a bogus coupon for Doritos that runs a malware program, infecting the computers that download it.

    Making it even more dangerous, most browsers will open an Acrobat, or PDF file, without seeking permission. When the file is opened, the malware program runs in the background, without the computer user being aware of it.

    Danger lurks

    What's the motive behind these attacks? First and foremost it's an attempt by spammers to increase the ranks of so-called "zombie" computers.

    The malware allows the hacker to take control of the unsuspecting consumer's computer. They can use it to send out millions of spam messages. You may have gotten a spam email from what appeared to be a legitimate email address, with a real person's name on it. Chances are it came from a zombie computer, with the computer's owner unaware his name was being used to promote a sexual enhancement product.

    But there is also a more sinister threat if your computer becomes a zombie. Because the hacker is in control, he or she may monitor your keystrokes and steal user ids and passwords, cleaning out a bank account or stealing an identity.

    To protect yourself, make sure you have the latest updates of Acrobat Reader and Flash. With Reader, the updates don't install automatically. You have to change the settings to make the program automatically install updates.

    Security experts also suggest disabling the feature that allows PDF files to open automatically in a browser. Simply open the Acrobat Reader software, select "edit," then "preferences." From the menu, click on "Internet" and unselect the option "display PDF in browser."

    Finally, make sure your anti-virus software is up to date. Cybercriminals continue to innovate and it's very hard to stay ahead of them.

    Avoiding computer viruses & malware isn't nearly as easy as it used to be. Cybercriminals are staying 2 or 3 steps ahead, often exploiting vulnerabilities ...

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      IIHS Picks 2010's Safest Cars

      Ford, Audi, Hyundai, Volkswagon score highest on roof strength

      By Mark Huffman

      June 10, 2010
      The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)is out with its new ratings for the 2010 models. Based on new rollover test results the 2010 Audi A4 and Q5, Ford Flex and Fusion (twins Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ), Hyundai Tucson, Lincoln MKT, and Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen earn the Institute's Top Safety Pick award.

      Each vehicle earns the highest rating of good for roof strength in rollover crashes. To measure roof strength, a metal plate is pushed against one corner of a vehicle's roof at a constant speed.

      The maximum force sustained by the roof before five inches of crush is compared with the vehicle's weight to find the strength-to-weight ratio. This is a good assessment of vehicle structural protection in rollover crashes. Good rated vehicles have roofs that can withstand a force equal to at least four times the vehicle's weight. For comparison, the current federal standard is 1.5 times weight.

      The Top Safety Pick recognizes the vehicles that earn the highest rating for front, side, rollover, and rear crash protection, and that have electronic stability control, which is standard on all of these models.

      Ford leads the pack

      Earlier this year Ford made changes to the roof structures of the Flex, Fusion, and MKT. The award applies to Flex models built after January 2010, Fusions built after April 2010, MKTs built after March 2010.

      Ford now has 11 Top Safety Pick ratings for 2010 model vehicles -- more than any other automaker. Flex, Fusion, MKZ, MKT and Milan previously earned top possible scores for occupant protection in IIHS's front, side and rear tests, but had to pass IIHS's new roof strength test to maintain the rating.

      Vehicles also must offer electronic stability control to be eligible for a Top Safety Pick.

      "Leading the industry in both Top Safety Pick ratings and government five-star crash test ratings is very significant because customers increasingly consider IIHS and NHTSA ratings when choosing a new vehicle," said Sue Cischke, Ford's group vice president of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering. "These latest test results further demonstrate Ford's commitment to continuous improvement on the safety front."

      IIHS Picks 2010's Safest Cars...

      GE Recalls Front-Loading Washing Machines

      GE is recalling about 180,000 front-load washing machines. A wire can break in the machine and make contact with a metal part on the washtub while the machine is operating, posing fire and shock hazards to consumers.

      GE is aware of seven incidents in which flames escaped the units and caused minor smoke damage. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves GE front-load washing machines without auxiliary water heating. Model and serial numbers are listed in the chart below. Recalled washing machines were manufactured between December 2006 and February 2010. The model and serial numbers are located on the bottom right side and on the bottom door frame of the washers.

      BrandModel Number Begins With:Serial Number Begins With:
      GEWBVH5 AM, AR, AS, AT, DM, DR, DS, FM,
      FR, FS, GM, GS, HM, HR, HS, LM,
      LR, LS, MM, MR, MS, RM, RR, RS,
      SM, SR, SS, TM, TR, TS, VM, VR,
      VS, ZL, ZM, ZR, ZS

      The washing machines, made in China, were sold at department and various retail stores nationwide from December 2006 through May 2010 for about $700.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled washers, unplug it from the electrical outlet and contact GE for a free repair. Consumers should not operate the washer until it has been repaired.

      For additional information, contact GE toll-free at (888) 345-4124 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website at www.geappliances.com

      The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      GE Recalls Front-Loading Washing Machines...

      Counterfeit Coupon Caper Slams Shoppers

      Pepsi, Doritos among major brands hit by phony coupon scam

      A Missouri mom who bit on an offer for free Doritos and Pepsi-Cola products is one the latest victims in a nationwide counterfeit coupon scheme.

      Claire N. of Kansas City recently received an e-mail that contained an attachment with printable coupons for the free chips and 12-packs of Pepsi-Cola soft drinks. The full color coupons had the word FREE in bold letters written across the top and indicated they didnt expire until December 2010.

      But when Claire tried to get her free Doritos, she learned the coupon was worthless.

      The cashier said the coupon was not valid because the store doesnt get the money back from Frito-Lay, she told us. It didnt stop me from buying the product, but it disappointed me because I thought I would get it free.

      Claire discovered the coupon for the free Pepsi-Cola products was a sham, too. The clerk said theyd had other coupons like that and they didnt accept them, either.

      The coupon caper shocked this savvy Midwest shopper. Here I was thinking I was going to get a free product and I didnt, Claire said. I feel a little bit ripped-off.

      ConsumerAffairs.com learned that Claire is among a growing number of shoppers duped in this scheme that is spreading coupons not created or authorized by Frito-Lay or Pepsi-Cola through cyberspace.

      Gone viral

      Were hearing from people nationwide, said Frito-Lay spokeswoman, Aurora Gonzalez. Frito-Lay and Pepsi-Cola are sister companies under the PepsiCo corporation umbrella. This has gone viral. Its being passed around in e-mails and were seeing it spread in a way weve not seen before.

      The company, however, has seen similar types of coupon scams before, Gonzalez said.

      This type of coupon showed up in the middle of last year and we were able to pull them off a Web site and control it, she said. But what makes this coupon so disconcerting for us is that its moved from an online source to a viral environment. And because of this new viral nature, we have no idea who is behind it and were seeing it all across the country.

      To combat this widespread problem, the company is trying to educate consumers, clearinghouses, and retailers about the fraud.

      Were fortunate that the guy putting our products on store shelves is a Frito-Lay person, Gonzalez said. We have resources on the front lines to let stores know about this. We have a direct channel to retailers.

      Our hope is to communicate as much as possible and get consumers educated so this will stop, she added.

      The companys next wave of communication will be with flyers that retailers can post in their stores, Gonzalez said.

      But there are thousands and thousands of stores. And there have been a significant number of stores that were not aware this coupon was a fraud and have taken it. Those coupons come back to us. Theres a financial implication for us.

      How to tell

      Is there any way retailers and consumers can spot the difference between the counterfeit coupons and real ones?

      Gonzalez said the phony coupons have several tell-tale signs, including:

      • They dont require consumers to purchase any products. Real coupons almost always require shoppers to buy a product in order to get a free one;

      • They state the maximum value is around $5.00. But the maximum value of a single bag of Doritos, for example, is never $5;

      • They usually have a one-part UPC code. Real coupons have a two-part UPC codes that can be tracked;

      • They dont refer to a specific ounce/weight for the product. Real Doritos coupons, for example, always refer to the specific bag size;

      • The mailing address to redeem the coupons is not correct. The mailing address for the phony Doritos coupon is Dallas, Texas. The address on the real Doritos coupons is Del Rio, Texas.

      Frito-Lay and Pepsi-Cola arent the only companies targeted in these counterfeit coupon schemes, though.

      The Coupon Information Corporation (CIC) said there are a number of fake coupons now in circulation, including ones for products made by Hanes, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Folgers, and Ben and Jerrys Ice Cream.

      The non-profit CIC said making counterfeit coupons is a crime that can be prosecuted by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. And the penalties can be severe. The longest prison sentence in one of these cases was 17 years, the organization said. The highest financial penalty was $5 million and prison sentences of three to five years are not uncommon.

      The CIC is now offering a $2,500 reward for information that leads to the successful prosecution of those responsible for producing many of the phony coupons, including the ones for the free Doritos. The CIC considers that coupon scheme widespread.

      The CIC and Frito-Lay said consumers should be leery of any coupons that sound too good to be true, especially ones that promise free products. In most cases, manufacturers require consumers to buy a product in order to receive a free one.

      Consumers should also be wary of any e-mails that contain PDF files with pages of printable coupons.

      Were not sending out coupons through e-mails, Frito-Lays Gonzalez said. Thats not a practice we use. We market our coupons through reputable Web sites and in weekend circulars in newspapers.

      So if you get our coupons through an e-mail, thats a red flag. Again, thats not a practice we use.

      Sorry but ...

      Frito-Lay has a message for customers like Claire, who got duped in this scheme.

      We sincerely apologize for the disappointment and confusion this has caused, the company states on its Web site.

      Gonzalez echoed that message. We dont want to disappoint our customers, she said.

      Back in Missouri, Claire told us shes going to do more research the next time someone e-mails her some coupons.

      If you get one and are concerned whether its legitimate or not, Id recommend going to the stores customer service area first before picking up the product, she said. But my message to consumers is beware of these types of coupons.

      Counterfeit Coupon Caper Slams Shoppers...

      P&G Pulls Some Lots of Iams Cat Food

      Company cites low levels of vitamin B1 for decision

      By Lisa Wade McCormick

      June 10, 2010
      Low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1) have prompted Procter & Gamble to recall certain lots of its Iams ProActive Health canned cat food.

      The Cincinnati-based company said it took the "precautionary measure" after tests revealed the food may contain insufficient levels of thiamine. Proctor and Gamble says thiamine is "essential for cats."

      The recall is limited to Iams ProActive Health canned cat and kitten food -- all varieties of 3 ounce and 5.5 ounce cans. The products have a date on the bottom of the cans of 09/2011 to 06/2012 and were distributed in North America.

      "Cats that were fed these canned products as their only food are at greater risk for developing signs of thiamine deficiency," the company said in a written statement.

      Early signs of thiamine deficiency may include loss of appetite, salivation, vomiting and weight loss, the company said. In advanced stages, symptoms can include downward curving of the neck, wobbly gait, falling, circling, and seizures.

      Pet owners should contact their veterinarians if their cats display any of these symptoms. "If treated promptly, thiamine deficiency is typically reversible," the company said, adding cat owners should discard any of the recalled products.

      For more information about the recall -- or a refund on the products -- pet owners can contact Procter & Gamble at 877-340-8826. More details are available on the company's Web site.

      P&G Pulls Some Lots of Iams Cat Food...

      Understanding Reverse Mortgage Risks

      Not always the easy source of money that commercials portray

      June 10, 2010
      With the worst recession in recent memory, many senior citizens are looking for ways to increase income. A reverse mortgage may, or may not be the answer, according to financial advisors at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

      A reverse mortgage is essentially a loan against your home that you do not have to pay back for as long as you live there. It allows homeowners age 62 or older to borrow cash from the equity in their homes without having to make monthly payments.

      You've probably seen ads for reverse mortgages, portraying them as a great source of easy money for older homeowners to supplement their income, pay healthcare expenses or use the money as they please. While there are potential benefits to a reverse mortgage, it may not be the best option for everyone.

      With the number of potential borrowers growing with the aging population, it's important that homeowners fully understand the risks involved. Remember -- a reverse mortgage is a loan that must be repaid.

      "Not all advertisements clearly indicate that a reverse mortgage is a loan," said Mira Marshall, an FDIC Section Chief specializing in consumer issues. "In fact, a reverse mortgage is a very complicated loan that uses home equity as collateral, just like the mortgage you probably used to purchase your home."

      Reverse mortgages allow homeowners to receive cash in a lump sum, through monthly payments, as a line of credit whenever they need money, or any combination of these options. Unlike traditional mortgage products, homeowners do not make any monthly payments to the lender.

      Loan amount grows over time

      However, they eventually do have to repay the principal and interest when they move, sell the house or die. And, because no monthly payments are being made, the amount owed will grow over time as interest costs build up and, in some cases, as additional funds are advanced.

      The borrower also remains responsible for paying the property taxes and insurance and maintaining the house. Failure to do so can cause the reverse mortgage to become immediately due and payable in full.

      The rules to determine how much you can borrow through a reverse mortgage are complex. For example, the total amount of cash available is a percentage of the home's value that will vary by the age of the borrower and the location of the property. And if there's a co-borrower, the value is determined by the age of the youngest borrower.

      Let's say your house has a market value of $250,000, you owe nothing on a mortgage and the youngest co-owner is 70 years old. Even though your home equity is about $250,000, with a reverse mortgage and depending on the location of the property, you can borrow only up to approximately $130,000. In contrast, with a traditional home equity loan, it may be possible to borrow up to 100 percent of the value of the home.

      Interest can eat up all equity

      Borrowers also should keep in mind that the more cash they take out and the longer they go without making loan payments, the interest charges and other costs can use up much or all of the equity, leaving fewer and fewer assets for the borrower or heirs. And if you or your heirs want to keep the house instead of selling it, the full loan amount would be due and payable from your own funds, even if its more than the value of the property.

      "Because the costs and fees can be extremely high," said Mike Evans, an FDIC Fair Lending Specialist, "most experts generally advise homeowners not to take out a reverse mortgage if they plan to stay in their home less than five years or if they simply need extra money for small expenses."

      Do your homework

      FDIC recommends that you do your research and shop around before committing to a reverse mortgage. To understand the potential pros and cons of a reverse mortgage, talk to financial advisors and qualified housing counselors. Depending on your circumstances, there may be other, less expensive options available to you.

      Explore different kinds of loans and programs from local government agencies or nonprofit organizations. In some cases, it may even make financial sense to sell your home and downsize to a less expensive home or even a rental.

      If you decide that borrowing money is the way to go, contact several lenders and compare the costs and benefits of the options they offer.

      "Most financial experts also agree that it is never a good idea to use the funds from a reverse mortgage to purchase other financial products or services," said David Lafleur, an FDIC Senior Examination Specialist. "Not only will you immediately incur expensive interest charges and other fees in connection with the reverse mortgage, but having large deposits or annuities may make it tougher for you to qualify for certain entitlement programs that take assets into consideration, such as Medicaid. Also, if you tie up money in CDs or annuities, you will be giving up easy access to funds you may need to meet your expenses."

      Understanding Reverse Mortgage Risks...

      Some Payday Loan 'Alternatives' Not Always A Good Idea

      Triple-digit rates offer no choice to the payday loan trap, says NCLC.

      By James Limbach

      June 10, 2010
      Some loans offered by banks and credit unions as "alternatives" to high-cost, short-term payday loans may instead plunge consumers into a costly and nearly inescapable debt cycle -- just like payday loans!

      That's the warning contained in "Stopping the Payday Loan Trap: Alternatives That Work, Ones That Don't," a report issued by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC).

      "Too many providers of so-called payday loan alternatives hit consumers with some of the same onerous provisions that predatory lenders use to saddle unwary and vulnerable borrowers with loans they can't afford to repay," said Lauren Saunders, managing attorney of NCLC's Washington office and principal author of the report.

      Tactics employed by payday loan operations are well documented. Bonita of East Orange, NJ, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that Payday-Loan-Yes.com extracted money from her financial institution without her authorization. "When I contacted them regarding the matter an accounting manager (wouldn't give name) nor come to the phone told the representative she was not reversing the transaction." Bonita says the company refused to even tell her where they are located so she could take follow-up action.

      Then there's this horror story from Thuha of Federal Heights, CO. "I asked for a $300 payday loan in which it was $381 after all fees. They (Cash Transfer Centers) debited the loan on the wrong way (off week) of my actual payday. And not just one debit, but they broke it up into two debits of 190; therefore, making me accrue not one overdraft fee, but four (two for them of $29 and two from my bank of $39)." Thuha says she was then threatened with wage garnishment before she was even notified by her bank that she overdrafted. "Warning," she concludes, "your $300 loan will turn into a $1,000 nightmare!"

      For those who seek them, affordable small loans are available -- especially at credit unions, the report found. NCLC researchers reviewed hundreds of small loans.

      "Many genuine payday alternatives are in the market, but some products are nearly as bad as or even worse than payday loans," said Leah Plunkett, the report's coauthor. "Cash advances offered to checking account holders by Wells Fargo Bank, U.S. Bank and Fifth Third Bank are payday loans, plain and simple -- triple digit loans repaid on the next payday."

      Even some federal credit unions are exploiting loopholes to offer payday loans at triple-digit interest rates, including California-based Kinecta Federal Credit Union's 14-day loan with an annual percentage rate, or APR, that the report estimates at 362 percent. Other federal credit unions offer expensive loans from E-AccessLoan.com.

      Genuine alternatives include the Credit Builder loan from Alternatives Federal Credit Union in New York; affordable, interest-based overdraft lines of credit from some major banks; and affordable small loans offered by Progreso Financiero, a community development financial institution in California.

      Genuine and safe payday loan alternatives must have annual percentage rates, including fees, no higher than 36 percent; terms of at least 90 days, repayments in installments and no check-holding or electronic access to the consumer's bank account, according to NCL.

      Such loans can help consumers escape the "debt traps" operated by payday lenders, who rely on high costs (annual percentage rates up to 390 percent or more), short terms, balloon payments and coercive security provisions to force victims to roll over loans and pay astronomical fees.

      "Payday loan alternatives that help consumers must be repayable affordably and over time, so that hard-pressed borrowers who need short-term help can climb out of debt rather than get trapped in it," Saunders said.

      Separately, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has announced the formation of "Operation Sunset", an enforcement initiative designed to go after payday lenders who attempt to evade the ban on payday loans. The law allowing payday loans expires on June 30.

      "I will use every tool at my disposal to enforce the end of exorbitant payday loans in Arizona and seek fines and penalties against those who try to continue this abusive practice," Goddard said. "I encourage citizens to report violations to our Office. Our enforcement will be swift and aggressive."

      Goddard noted that other states, such as North Carolina and Arkansas, have seen deceptive practices following changes in their laws that ended payday loans. Auto loans, pre-paid debit cards and Internet payday lending are alternatives used by the payday loan industry elsewhere to evade the law. For example, pre-paid debit cards have been offered with an interest rate and fees that would exceed Arizona's annual percentage rate limit of 36 percent.

      The AG's Office is sending payday loan companies a letter informing them of the "Operation Sunset" initiative.

      Some Payday Loan 'Alternatives' Not Always A Good Idea...

      Consumer Reports: High Price Doesn't Guarantee High Laundry Detergent Performance

      Formulas from Tide deliver cleanest clothes, Martha Stewart detergent finishes last in tests

      June 9, 2010
      The latest Consumer Reports tests of more than 50 laundry detergents continue to show that buying a high-priced product doesn't guarantee cleaner clothes.

      Formulas from Tide topped ratings of conventional and high-efficiency formulas, but there are other, less-expensive formulas from manufacturers such as Gain that offer comparable cleaning.

      To determine which perform best, CR tests all laundry detergents on seven common stains and soils, using a color-sensitive instrument called a colorimeter to analyze how much stain remains after washing. Both conventional and high-efficiency washing machines are used and the laundry detergents are used as directed on the container. All are measured against washing with nothing but water, which provides minimal cleaning.

      Consumer Reports tested liquid and powder formulas of conventional and high-efficiency laundry detergents. When choosing a detergent, consumers must consider the type of washing machine they have or use; conventional detergents should be used with standard, top-loading washing machines and high-efficiency formulas, which produce less suds, must be used with front-loading or high-efficiency top-loading machines.

      Conventional laundry detergents

      In CR's recent lab tests, Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water and Tide 2X Ultra with Dawn Stainscrubbers, both 23 cents per load, topped the charts. Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water cleaned best and because it is formulated for cold water, consumers can save roughly $60 per year in water-heating energy costs. Tide 2X Ultra with Dawn Stainscrubbers is also a solid pick, but despite its stain-scrubbing name, it did not excel at removing blood and grass stains.

      High-efficiency laundry detergents

      Front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loading washing machines require high-efficiency laundry detergents. Consumer Reports tested 23 formulas and eight performed well-enough to recommend including formulas from Tide, All, Gain, Up & Up (Target), Kirkland Signature (Costco), and Seventh Generation.

      Tide 2X Ultra with Color Clean Bleach Alternative HE, 24 cents per load, topped the ratings for cleaning best overall and noted for being very good on grass stains. Gain Original Fresh HE which costs six cents per load is a CR "Best Buy." It was impressive at cleaning, costs far less and was the top pick among powders for its fine performance on grass and bloodstains.

      Kirkland Signature Environmentally Friendly Ultra 2X HE (Costco), 12 cents per load, and Seventh Generation Natural Powdered HE, 36 cents per load, are mostly plant-based and cleaned best among detergents with green claims.

      Martha Stewart Clean Laundry Detergent finished last-place among laundry detergents in both categories. Like water, it provides minimal cleaning, leaving behind more of the wine, chocolate, grass, ring around the collar, and other common stains and soils in conventional top-loading washer tests. It cleaned only slight better in front-loaders.

      The full report, which includes six tips for achieving cleaner clothes and buying advice and ratings of laundry detergents, is featured in the July issue of the magazine.

      Consumer Reports: High Price Doesn't Guarantee High Laundry Detergent Performance...

      Mississippi Warns BP Against Seeking Refuge in Federal Court

      State 'won't take a dime less' than it is owed, its AG asserts

      Tempers are growing short along the Gulf Coast, with Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood firing the latest round, saying his state "will not take a dime less" than it is entitled to from the claims process established by BP to compensate victims of the massive oil gusher that is fouling the waters of the Gulf Coast.

      He warned the company not to try an end-run around the states.

      On Monday, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell filed a Petition for Discovery and Investigation against British Petroleum in state court in Plaquemines Parish.

      Hood said his experience with Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that an open claims process is essential to keeping Gulf Coast businesses and individuals from succumbing to bankruptcy and foreclosure. "Victims need money now to stay afloat," Hood said.

      In initial meetings between Gulf Coast attorneys general and BP, Hood said he demanded -- and BP agreed -- that no claimants would be required to sign a waiver of their right to sue later and that BP waiver the statutory liability cap of $75 million. The company agreed to both and, so far, has paid $5.5 million in claims to Mississippi residents and businesses.

      But Hood said that he is concerned the company's strategy is to go to federal court in an attempt to make an end run around the states.

      "BP and Transocean have revealed their legal strategy by filing actions before federal judges in Houston, Texas, in an attempt to drag all claims by individuals, businesses, and the state and federal governments into a foreign jurisdiction," Hood said. "We want the claims made by the state of Mississippi to be decided by a Mississippi state court."

      A hard lesson

      Hood said Mississippi learned a hard but valuable lesson after Katrina.

      "The insurance industry abused the federal court system to delay the state court suit which my office filed within two weeks of Katrina. It took Mississippi four years to bring the issue before our Mississippi Supreme Court, where it rightfully belonged. Just this past October, the Court ruled in our favor nine to zero," he said.

      But Hood said it was a "hollow victory" because by the time of the state court decision most cases had already settled.

      "I will fight to make sure the oil companies do not abuse the federal system to delay justice due the people of Mississippi," he said. "If the 11th Amendment to our United States Constitution has any meaning left, it is that state claims should be litigated in our state courts."

      The 11th Amendment basically recognizes that states have a certain degree of sovereign immunity and are not totally subordinate to the federal government.

      Louisiana petition

      The Louisiana petition alleges that BP has failed to cooperate and share important information with the State, specifically information requested repeatedly by the Louisiana Workforce Commission and the Louisiana Department of Social Services regarding all claims data collected by ESIS, the third party administrator for claims, and for information about workers hired by BP. The purpose of the petition is to gather information as part of the State's investigation as to the causes of the spill and impacts to the state.

      "Today's filing was a last resort in trying to get information from BP that the Department of Social Services and the Louisiana Workforce Commission have requested repeatedly from BP since May 3 regarding the BP claims process," Caldwell said.

      Louisiana, Caldwell says, has made several requests for information and/or further explanation but has not received an adequate response. Despite promises that BP would cooperate and coordinate its response with the State, Caldwell says he has seen little evidence.

      "Today's petition is a request for a court to order BP to produce information that the State needs to monitor BP's claims process to ensure that our citizens are being treated fairly and receiving proper assistance," Caldwell said. "As Attorney General, be assured that I will take any and all necessary legal actions to safeguard the interests of those citizens and other entities of Louisiana who elect to file or are considering filing claims through the process BP has established."

      Over the weekend BP announced that it was capturing most of the oil leaking from the ocean floor, though Obama administration officials conceded the oil might continue to link well into the Autumn months. BP said the cap it attached to the top of the leaking well siphoned off 10,500 barrels of oil out of an estimated 12,000-19,000 barrels a day leaking from the wellhead.

      The spill's costs continue to escalate and now have exceeded $1.25 billion, according to BP's estimates. BP has set aside $350 million to pay for construction of sand barriers along the Louisiana coastline, to protect environmentally sensitive marshlands.

      Mississippi Warns BP Against Seeking Refuge in Federal Court...

      Mead Johnson Pulls Chocolate Drink For Kids

      Sweet beverage had been controversial among some parents

      June 9, 2010

      Saying it's been the subject of "misunderstanding and mischaracterization," Mead Johnson Nutrition has withdrawn its Enfagrow Premium chocolate drink from the market.

      The product, intended for toddlers weaned from breast milk or formula, contains 19 grams of sugar per seven-ounce serving and has been controversial since its introduction.

      "Our Enfagrow Premium products were introduced in the U.S. for toddlers who have been weaned off breast milk or infant formula, but still need nutritional support to their main diet," the company said in a statement. "Parents have told us that they consider these products an important option for meeting the overall nutritional needs of toddlers, especially those who are picky or erratic eaters."

      The company also said the recently introduced chocolate-flavored version has what it called "a superior nutritional profile" to many other beverages typically consumed by toddlers -- including apple juice, grape juice, and similarly flavored dairy drinks.

      "Unfortunately, there has been some misunderstanding and mischaracterization regarding the intended consumer for this product and the proper role it can play in a child's balanced diet," the statement reads. "The resulting debate has distracted attention from the overall benefits of the brand, so we have decided to discontinue production of Enfagrow Premium chocolate toddler drink and phase it out over the coming weeks."

      The American Academy of Pediatrics was among the critics, suggesting that feeding sweets to toddlers increases their interest in consuming more sugary foods and decreases their interest in more nutritious food. In recent years many doctors have recommended limiting toddlers' consumption of sweet food and beverages.

      Enfagrow Premium will remain available in three unflavored versions -- Next Step, Gentlease Next Step and Soy Next Step -- as well as vanilla. Mead Johnson said it stands behind the nutritional quality and scientific integrity of all its products, "while also striving to be responsive to the needs and concerns of our consumers in the marketplace."

      Saying it's been the subject of "misunderstanding and mischaracterization," Mead Johnson Nutrition has withdrawn its Enfagrow Premium chocolate drink from ...

      Some Consumers Would Like To End Political Robo Calls

      Political calls not covered by Do Not Call list

      By Mark Huffman

      June 8, 2010
      With anti-incumbent fever sweeping the nation, this primary election season has been more active than most. That means millions of Americans have received automated telephone calls in recent days promoting a candidate or ballot initiative.

      Some consumers, like Pamela of Pasadena, Calif., have had enough.

      "For weeks, I've been receiving between four to ten calls per day regarding the primary elections," Pamela told ConsumerAffairs.com. "These are recordings so there's no opportunity to ask a question. They're commercials basically. My 92-year old mother can't take a nap! I'm very interested in the elections, and do my homework, but I don't want all these calls coming to my home day and night."

      Even if Pamela were on the national Do Not Call list, it wouldn't stop the political robo calls. That's because when Congress wrote the law setting up the Do Not Call list, it exempted political calls, as well as charitable solicitations and surveys. But many people find political robo calls just as annoying as ones from telemarketers.

      "I would like the Do Not Call list to extend to pre-recorded messages which serve no purpose," Pamela said. "There's no assurance of accuracy in these statements. In California many have been outright lies, and anyone who would vote for someone after listening to a recording, shouldn't be voting. Can anything be done?"

      Some people are trying.

      Shaun Dakin, the CEO and founder of Citizens for Civil Discourse, has set up a website to campaign for political calls to be included in those forbidden if one is on the Do Not Call list.

      As a start, he is gathering names and numbers of consumers who want to opt out. He says they will be forwarded to the political parties, requesting they be voluntarily excluded. So far, he says, about 50,000 consumers have signed up.

      "We work with candidates and advocacy groups to educate them on the lack of effectiveness of political robo calls and encourage them to use alternate channels to communicate with voters," Dakin said on his website.

      Unless the law is changed, annoyed consumers will have to find a work-around. One anonymous poster on a SeattlePI.com forum offered this advice:

      "I just put the phone down," they wrote. "I don't hang up, just put it down so I don't have to listen to them babble. That way at least they can't call someone else for the minute or so they think they are talking to me."

      Some Consumers Would Like To End Political Robo Calls...

      Big Tobacco Takes On New York Smoking Regulation

      Lawsuit says city upstages feds, violates First Amendment

      By Jon Hood

      June 8, 2010
      New York City used to be the "murder capital" of the country. These days, it looks more like the nation's health club and spa.

      In 2003, the Big Apple outlawed smoking in all bars and restaurants, and in 2006 banished trans fats from local eateries. In 2008, the city began requiring chain restaurants to post the nutritional content of their offerings, meaning New Yorkers would never look at a Big Mac the same way again. And earlier this year, a state assemblyman from Brooklyn introduced legislation that would prohibit restaurants from using salt "in any form" when preparing food.

      New York has gotten its share of good-humored ribbing about its "nanny state" tendencies over the past few years. But the city's latest regulation is getting more serious pushback from a determined source: the tobacco industry.

      For the past six months, New York has required retailers to display posters with nauseating photos that show the effects of prolonged tobacco use. The placards include the typical warnings that smoking "causes lung cancer" or "causes tooth decay" but also feature photos of, for example, a blackened lung or a rotted tooth, to drive the point home in an extremely visceral fashion.

      On Wednesday, three leading tobacco companies -- Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, and Lorillard -- filed a lawsuit contending the signs improperly usurp the federal government's role of regulating tobacco packaging. The companies also argue that the law violates the First Amendment, since it forces storeowners to display the signs even if they disagree with their message. The New York State Association of Convenience Stores, a non-profit trade association made up of 250 companies, also joined the suit.

      "The mandated signs crowd out other advertisements and otherwise dominate the point of sale in many smaller establishments, to the exclusion of merchandise or other messages chosen by the store owners," the suit says.

      Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer who is representing the retailers, told The New York Times on Friday that the city "doesn't have the right...to force other people to adopt its expression."

      Sarah Perl, assistant commissioner for tobacco control at New York's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told the Times in December that the posters are intended to target consumers "at the point-of-sale moment." Perl added that customers have learned to tune out the generic Surgeon General's warnings that appear on all cigarette packs and advertisements, in large part because those warnings haven't changed much since their introduction in 1966.

      Regardless of the outcome, the suit will have far-reaching consequences even outside New York. Massachusetts, which was in the process of implementing a law requiring similar signs, has a special interest in the case.

      "Any education and cessation material we can get out there, we would like to get out on a state level," Jennifer Manley, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, told Boston.com on Sunday. "We're going to keep watching New York City closely to see what the outcome is."

      And even if the tobacco companies win this round, they'll take a hit in 2012, when federal standards will begin mandating more conspicuous warnings on cigarette packages. Unlike the subtle black-and-white boxes currently featured on the sides of cigarette boxes, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act requires that warnings cover at least 50 percent of the package and that the word "warning" appear in capital letters.

      The Act was signed into law by President Obama, himself an occasional smoker, last June.

      Big Tobacco Takes On New York Smoking Regulation...

      Arizona AG Files Lawsuit Against Loan Modification Company

      Obtains temporary restraining order to protect homeowners

      June 7, 2010
      The state of Arizona has filed a lawsuit against Discount Mortgage Relief and Mortgage Relief, LLC, (DMR/MR), based in Scottsdale, and its owners for engaging in allegedly deceptive loan modification services.

      The office of Attorney General Terry Goddard also secured a Temporary Restraining Order that prevents DMR/MR from charging or receiving money for loan modification services and from advertising its services. The company was one of two sued by the state of Minnesota earlier this year.

      Court documents in the Arizona action claim the number of victims may number in the thousands.

      "Instead of providing assistance, many loan modification companies have been pocketing large upfront fees and failing to obtain any kind of mortgage relief for homeowners," said Goddard. "In this past legislative session, my Office championed the passage of SB 1130, which prohibits foreclosure consultants from receiving fees before they provide loan modification or other services."

      The new law prohibiting consultants from collecting upfront fees takes effect July 29.

      The lawsuit alleges that at least since July 2009, DMR/MR deceived consumers into paying thousands of dollars for mortgage loan modification services by misrepresenting the company's ability to help them obtain mortgage relief and save their homes, thereby violating the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

      Consumers allegedly paid DMR/MR between approximately $1,350 and $5,000 for loan modification services and were guaranteed results by the company.

      The lawsuit contends that Discount Mortgage Relief and Mortgage Relief, LLC. violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act by:

      • Misleading consumers into believing they were pre-qualified and guaranteed to receive a loan modification through the company's services.

      • Falsely promising favorable results and telling consumers that any foreclosure proceedings against their homes would stop once they hired the company.

      • Misrepresenting that the company used attorneys to negotiate consumers' loan modifications.

      • Falsely stating that they were associated with or acting on behalf of the government and associated with or acting on behalf of the consumer's lender.

      • Falsely stating that the company was "FBI certified".

      • Misrepresenting the nature of the company's loan modification services by referring to them as forensic loan documentation audits or analyses.

      • Falsely promising consumers that they would receive a refund of fees if the company failed to get them a loan modification and failing to return fees to some consumers who decided not to hire the company and never signed a contract.

      In the lawsuit, Goddard asks the court to order Discount Mortgage Relief/Mortgage Relief to:

      • Refrain from violating the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

      • Pay full restitution to all homeowners who paid Discount Mortgage Relief/Mortgage Relief for loan modification services.

      • Pay a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.

      • Reimburse the Attorney General's Office for its costs in this matter.

      The AG recommends that homeowners who are in or facing foreclosure seek assistance promptly from their mortgage lender or servicer or a government-approved housing counselor. Federal, state and local governments offer numerous free resources for distressed homeowners.

      Arizona AG Files Lawsuit Against Loan Modification Company...

      Countrywide To Pay $108 Million for Overcharging Struggling Homeowners

      Loan servicer inflated fees, mishandled loans of borrowers in bankruptcy, agency says

      Two Countrywide mortgage servicing companies will pay $108 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they collected excessive fees from cash-strapped borrowers who were struggling to keep their homes.

      That represents one of the largest judgments imposed in an FTC case, and the largest mortgage servicing case. The money will be used to reimburse overcharged homeowners whose loans were serviced by Countrywide before it was acquired by Bank of America in July 2008.

      "Life is hard enough for homeowners who are having trouble paying their mortgage. To have a major loan servicer like Countrywide piling on illegal and excessive fees is indefensible," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "We're very pleased that homeowners will be reimbursed as a result of our settlement."

      Charges outlined

      According to the complaint filed by the FTC, Countrywide's loan-servicing operation deceived homeowners who were behind on their mortgage payments into paying inflated fees -- fees that could add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

      Many of the homeowners had taken out loans originated or funded by Countrywide's lending arm, including subprime or "nontraditional" mortgages such as payment option adjustable rate mortgages, interest-only mortgages, and loans made with little or no income or asset documentation, the complaint states.

      Mortgage servicers are responsible for the day-to-day management of homeowners' mortgage loans, including collecting and crediting monthly loan payments. Homeowners cannot choose their mortgage servicer. In March 2008, before being acquired by Bank of America, Countrywide was ranked as the nation's top mortgage servicer, with a balance of more than $1.4 trillion in its servicing portfolio.

      Profiting from hard times

      When homeowners fell behind on their payments and were in default on their loans, Countrywide ordered property inspections, lawn mowing, and other services meant to protect the lender's interest in the property, according to the FTC complaint.

      But rather than simply hire third-party vendors to perform the services, Countrywide created subsidiaries to hire the vendors. The subsidiaries marked up the price of the services charged by the vendors -- often by 100 percent or more -- and Countrywide then charged the homeowners the marked-up fees.

      The complaint contends the company's strategy was to increase profits from default-related service fees in bad economic times. As a result, even as the mortgage market collapsed and more homeowners fell into delinquency, Countrywide earned substantial profits by funneling default-related services through subsidiaries that it created solely to generate revenue.

      According to the FTC, under most mortgage contracts, homeowners must pay for necessary default-related services, but mortgage servicers may not mark up the cost to make a profit or charge homeowners for services that are not reasonable or appropriate to protect the mortgage holder's interest in the property. Homeowners do not have any choice in who performs default-related services or the cost of those services, and they have no option to shop for those services.

      Fast and loose

      In addition, in servicing loans for borrowers trying to save their homes in Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings, the complaint charges that Countrywide made false or unsupported claims to borrowers about amounts owed or the status of their loans. Countrywide also failed to tell borrowers in bankruptcy when new fees and escrow charges were being added to their loan accounts.

      The FTC alleges that after the bankruptcy case closed and borrowers no longer had bankruptcy court protection, Countrywide unfairly tried to collect those amounts, including in some cases via foreclosure.

      Settlement terms

      The FTC's complaint and settlement order name two mortgage servicers as defendants: Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. and BAC Home Loans Servicing LP, formerly doing business as Countrywide Home Loans Servicing LP. The settlement requires Countrywide to pay $108 million, which will be refunded to homeowners who Countrywide overcharged before July 2008.

      In addition, the settlement order prohibits Countrywide from taking advantage of borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments. The defendants continue to service millions of mortgage loans, including tens of thousands of loans involving borrowers in bankruptcy and foreclosure. In the servicing of loans, the defendants are permanently barred from:

      • Making false or unsubstantiated representations about loan accounts, such as amounts owed.

      • Charging any fee for a service unless it is authorized by the loan instruments, by law, or by the consumer for a specific service requested by the consumer.

      • Charging any fee for a default-related service unless it is a reasonable fee charged by a third party for work actually performed. If the service is provided by an affiliate of a defendant, the fee must be within limits set by state law, investor guidelines, and market rates. Defendants must obtain annual, independent market reviews of their affiliates' fees to ensure that they are not excessive.

      In addition, Countrywide must advise consumers if it intends to use affiliates for default-related services and, if so, provide a fee schedule of the amounts charged by the affiliates.

      The settlement also requires Countrywide to make significant changes to its bankruptcy servicing practices. For example, Countrywide must send borrowers in Chapter 13 bankruptcy a monthly notice with information about what amounts the borrower owes - including any fees assessed during the prior month.

      The defendants also must implement a data integrity program to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the data they use to service loans in Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

      Countrywide To Pay $108 Million for Overcharging Struggling Homeowners...

      How to Keep Your Brain in Shape

      12 ways Boomers can strengthen our minds to avoid those 'senior moments'

      Has this ever happened to you? Youre looking for something but suddenly you forget what youre looking for. Or you put down your car keys, but you cant remember where.

      Or how about this? You begin a conversation and halfway through you cant remember what you were talking about. Or you meet someone at a party that you know youve met many times before, but suddenly you draw blank on his or her name.

      Often, we jokingly refer to these experiences as senior moments. But as we get older and these moments become more frequent, its no longer very funny. It can be downright embarrassing or, worse, a foretelling of dementia or serious memory loss that may lie ahead.

      Anyone who has seen a parent or loved one battle with Alzheimers or any of the other forms of dementia that eat away at our ability to remember knows firsthand just how very sad and debilitating these diseases can be.

      Such diseases are becoming more prevalent as our population ages. According to the Alzheimers Association, 13% of those over the age of 65, or one in eight people, have Alzheimers -- and an estimated 16% of women and 11% of men have dementia over the age of 71. (Although rare, there is also something known as early-onset Alzheimers which, according to researcher Glenn E. Smith, affects an estimated 200,000 in the United States under the age of 65 with the majority of cases occurring during someones 50s).

      Temporary forgetfulness

      Heres some good news for Boomers who have those senior moments. Paul David Nussbaum, Ph.D. is a Pittsburgh-based clinical neuropsychologist who has been researching brain health and caring for those with dementia and related disorders for more than twenty years and who is author of Save Your Brain: 5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Mind Young and Sharp (McGraw-Hill, 2010). He calls those senior moments temporary forgetfulness.

      He says that when those instantaneous memory losses occur, its usually due to stress caused by trying to do too much all at once, hormonal changes that occur naturally around the fifties, and perhaps mood fluctuations related to changes in life circumstances.

      If the problem is severe, Nussbaum recommends you could get a neuropsychological assessment at a well-regarded academic medical center. But for most, those embarrassing occasional memory losses are not the precursor of the kind of dementia that robs someone of his or her life story as Nussbaum calls it.

      Brain health movement

      Still, those moments are a wake-up call that you need to put more time and energy into your brain. Nussbaum is part of what is known as the brain health movement. This is a movement that advocates taking a proactive approach to making lifestyle choices that will at least lower our risk of future brain disease.

      The Alzheimers Association and the medical community are quick to point out that genetics and aging itself are two factors we simply cannot control that put us at risk for Alzheimers and other dementias. However, in this column Im going to focus on those factors we can control.

      Plasticity of the brain

      In bygone days, it was believed that we were born with a certain number of brain cells and that was it. But starting in the 1990s, scientific discoveries confirmed that we can actually generate new brain cells. How do we do it? We have to actively work on having a brain with plasticity.

      What is plasticity? Nussbaum says its a brain that is dynamic, constantly recognizing, and malleable. In that way, we can also build up brain reserve, which, as Nussbaum says, could lead to better memory processing, better moods, more energy, and more efficient thinking. He says that brain reserve will, later on, make us better equipped to at least delay when or if dementia strikes.

      Researchers have discovered there are ways to improve brain function as pointed out in The Healthy Brain Initiative. This study contends that what contributes to a healthy heart also contributes to a healthy brain. (See also "Heart Health for Boomers."

      In his book, Nussbaum identifies five concerns that he calls critical areas for improving brain health:

      • Socialization;
      • Physical activity;
      • Mental stimulation;
      • Spirituality;
      • Nutrition.

      In researching how to have a healthier brain, I found twelve top ways (many of which overlap with Nussbaums five critical areas) to enhance the plasticity of your brain, to build brain reserve, and to at least slow down the onset of dementia in later years:

      1. Exercise. By boosting blood flow to the brain, exercise seems to be the number one factor in keeping your brain healthy. The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) recommends exercising on a regular basis or at least for thirty minutes, three times a week. Suggested exercise options include walking, gardening, swimming, cycling, or dancing.

      2. Engage in activities that stimulate the brain like reading books, newspapers, or magazines, taking part in crafts, or exploring new information on the Internet.

      3. Keep your mind challenged through word games and crossword puzzles. (Michel Noir, Ph.D. and Bernard Croisile, M.D., Ph.D. provide 301 easy, medium, and hard puzzles for building your brain plasticity in their series of brain-building exercise books including Beef Up Your Brain (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

      4. Limit TV viewing to fewer than 7 hours a day. (See also Do Soaps & Talk Shows Dull The Brain?)

      5. Eat a well-balanced diet that is filled with vegetables, fruits, sufficient protein, B vitamins, and high in omega-3 fatty acids and not saturated fats.

      6. Stop smoking.

      7. Consider if the prescription drugs you are taking combine to have a memory loss consequence and ask your physician to adjust accordingly.

      8. Stay hydrated. Drink a lot of water.

      9. Reduce stress in your life. As Paul E. Bendheim, M.D., author of The Brain Training Revolution (Sourcebooks, 2009), notes, stress in moderation can actually improve your short-term memory. He writes, Think of how the pressure and sense of urgency of an impending deadline improves your focus, concentration, and efficiency. However, there is also a different kind of stress that damages memory. High chronic stress levels are unhealthy and have been shown to damage the hippocampus [part of the brain] and thus impair memory and learning, Bendheim continues.

      10. Get enough sleep. If you get less sleep because youre stressed, it will usually have a negative impact on your concentrateionand memory. Anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter in school knows that too little sleep tends to mess up your memory and brain functioning. It also makes you more vulnerable to drowsy driving which can lead to an increased possibility of an accident or fatalities if you fall asleep at the wheel (or even to accidents at work).

      11. Do something fresh and challenging. Dr. Nussbaum says the best way to build up those brain reserves is to do something that is new and hard. Stimulate that cortex with the novel and the complex One way to accomplish that? Travel says Nussbaum. It promotes brain health by exposing your brain to a new environment. Using the hand that is not your dominant hand is another way of doing something novelif you are a rightie brush your teeth with your left hand or trying teaching yourself to write with your other hand; learning a second or third language is another challenge to build up brain reserve.

      12. Stay connected socially. Connect with family or friends on a regular basis. If you are still working, make sure you reach out to your connections through work. If you are retired and no longer working and feeling too isolated, consider a part-time job, getting active in any of the associations or community groups you belong to, or doing volunteer work to get more socially connected.

      10 Warning Signs of Alzheimers

      Still worried that your occasional forgetfulness is the sign of something far worse? Here are the ten warning signs of Alzheimers Disease, according to the University of South Florida Byrd Alzheimers Institute:

      • Recent memory loss that affects your job skills;
      • Difficult performing familiar tasks;
      • Problems with language;
      • Disorientation of time and place;
      • Poor or decreased judgment;
      • Problems with abstract thinking;
      • Misplacing things;
      • Changes in mood or behavior;
      • Changes in personality;
      • Loss of initiative.

      These symptoms for Alzheimers are a far cry from occasionally misplacing your car keys. Fortunately research is showing that you can impact on how healthy your brain is or at least those factors that are not caused by genetics or advancing age. With science and technology partnering to help us all live a lot longer, keeping our brains as healthy as possible should be one of our top priorities.



      Articles, Papers and Reports

      How to Keep Your Brain in Shape...

      Gulf Coast Soldiers On As BP Spill Fills the Gulf of Mexico

      New Orleans hosts its first, and maybe last, Oyster Festival as the oil slick spreads

      By Leonard Earl Johnson

      June 7, 2010
      New Orleans tourism is not showing much effect from British Petroleum's gift that keeps on giving. After all, tourists never did come here for the water.

      There is no coastline inside Orleans Parish. At least not yet. No marshes. No wetlands. No water. No oil.

      The oil-assaulted wetlands are all below New Orleans. And west of the River. And now east. The heart aches with the sight of each noble pelican slathered with deadly black goo.

      It is those marshlands of Plaquemines and Saint Bernard and Jefferson Parishes that feed and protect us. We fear greatly for them. And now the beaches of Mississippi. And Alabama. And Florida.

      British Petroleum's gusher is filling the Gulf of Mexico with oil.

      But in the French Quarter and Uptown cafes and shops the crowds are normal. Summer-thin, to be sure, but normally so. Inside restaurants -- numbering two-hundred more than before the hurricanes of 2005 -- the atmosphere is comfortable and the kitchens are busy.

      Summer comes early to New Orleans. It is a city as deeply inside the magnolia curtain as it can be. One step further back and we would be out in the off-shore oil patch.

      This time of year the heat and humidity are present enough that you might comfortably spend an afternoon sharing a bottle of wine with them on the gallery.

      This is a time when crowds melt down to small trickles of hearty family travelers, worldly Europeans (who don't buy souvenirs), and assorted National Geographic readers.

      They come with smaller footprints than the high-rolling oil barons, conventioneers, and limitlessly-funded bankers who account for the bulk of our high annual hotel occupancy. They tilt the numbers heavily during the cooler months. Then they leave the summer for us to do with as we please with our better-mannered visitors.

      In June we become less like a Disneyland for adults and more like a city. This time of year we can get a seat on the street car, and ride our bicycle without navigating around tourists walking five abreast down any street in the French Quarter.

      Now we see who is in town

      Recently seen grazing in trendy cafes among the Summer herd has been British Petroleum's head honcho (I guess he is the head? Can anyone tell what all those BP titles mean?), Chief Executive Officer and apologist, Tony Hayward. His table mate was Admiral Thad Allen. Hopefully they dined on Louisiana seafood. God knows those two had things to talk about.

      The megacatastrophe they can not handle has now reached as far as Florida's white sands, with promise of going even farther.

      Their meetings are not the dreaded collusion of power that talk radio can neither stop talking about nor locate. Those meetings go on in secreted situations. Like Dick Cheney's Vice Presidential office. Where undisclosed energy barons met and planned America's future without regulations that required off-shore drillers to plan, baby plan for a worst-case, May-Day situation. Like the one today filling the Gulf of Mexico with oil. Louisiana Senator David Vitter led the battle for repeal.

      BP's end of the world not withstanding, this is still one of the better times to be in New Orleans. And thus it has been for the thirty-some years I have called this 300-year-old City home.

      A story of fun and bad timing

      On Sunday June 5, amid the worst assault on America's fisheries ever, the first annual New Orleans Oyster Festival launched itself in the broiling midday sun, atop a melting asphalt parking lot, between Decatur Street and cool green Woldenberg Park overlooking the Mississippi River. Rent must have been cheaper in the parking lot. Proceeds went to save our coastline.

      In the park atop the levee, TV luminaries like James Carville and Anderson Cooper told audiences nothing of the Oyster Festival but lots about the oil pollution.

      Zazzle.com created a custom stamp for the New Orleans Oyster Festival

      Down in the hot parking lot, Andrea Apuzzo, owner of Metairie, Louisiana's noted Northern Italian restaurant, Andrea's, stood beside his tent offering savory examples of his great skill with Louisiana oysters and shrimp. A wafting tar-pitch smell washed over us. A tourist asked if the odor was from the Gulf oil spill.

      Apuzzo waved his hand towards the row of tents and said, "That's from the oysters down there."

      It was not, of course. What was down there was more great food. Like the signature dish, Shrimp Rmoulade, from Galatoire's, one of the grand old ladies of New Orleans restaurants. In the French Quarter, Galatoire's invented American Rmoulade.

      The example they passed out of their tent was as succulent as the day of the dish's birth.

      Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House, also in the French Quarter, served one of the best dishes of the day, andouille creme sauce over oysters with a tasty slice of tangy chapati bread.

      Another best dish was the three oysters fried and topped with a smoked tomato relish, from Luke's, in the Central Business District.

      This divine offering came from one of the older of the 200 new post-Katrina/Rita restaurants. I had not been to it (there are so many) but let me say, welcome, welcome, welcome! They are on Saint Charles Avenue near Poydras Street.

      Dishes ran five-to-seven dollars, and servings were a bit less than half normal in-house sizes. If we are all still here come next broiling hot June we will be back.

      Not that anyone at the Oyster Fest said much about it, but President Obama was here again, Saturday, for his third visit since the oil volcano erupted. He didn't stop for oysters. How could he, with Governor Bobby Jindal hollering in front of any mike that will open up for him that he, Obama, should do something about it now?

      The sad truth is if anyone could really do something, they would really do it.

      The Oyster Fest, we hope, is staying. And the president is welcome any time, any year.

      Meanwhile in the End Times

      BP CEO Hayward has dropped out of sight after his barrage of apologetic television ads bombed. He said things like he would "like his life back" to the families of the eleven killed when the Horizon drilling platform exploded.

      Thad Allen has turned his Admiralty offensive East, following the oil plumes. He was last seen in Alabama.

      In Florida, bigger tar balls and sticky oil patches are washing ashore, and Florida Governor Charlie Crist, looking like a suntanned movie star, walked gingerly on a black polka-dotted white beach. He told the TV audience he was flying over to New Orleans to meet with the President of the United States. He did not holler about doing something magical. But he did not come to the Oyster Fest, either.

      Life goes on. The food is great. And the lines are shorter. Just like last summer.


      Leonard Earl Johnson is a former cook, merchant seaman, photographer and columnist for Les Amis de Marigny, a New Orleans monthly magazine. Post-Katrina, he has decamped to Lafayette, La. Columns past, present and future are at www.lej.org.

      Gulf Coast Soldiers On As BP Spill Fills the Gulf of Mexico...

      'Hot Fuel' Suits Get Class Action Status

      Actions allege that retailers shortchanged consumers by selling gas too hot

      By Jon Hood

      June 6, 2010
      A Kansas federal judge granted class action status this week to two lawsuits alleging that multiple retailers are ripping off consumers by selling them hot fuel.

      The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil allows the suits -- which involve 12 separate retailers -- to proceed.

      What is hot fuel? Simply put, it's a matter of chemistry. Since fuel is a liquid, as its temperature increases, so does its volume. That means that hotter gas has less energy than it would at lower temperatures, and that consumers thus drive off with less usable fuel in their tank.

      Industry standards dictate that retailers should not sell fuel that is hotter than 60 degrees Fahrenheit without making adjustments to the gas's volume.

      The companies named as defendants are Chevron, Citgo, Shell, Valero, ConocoPhillips, 7-Eleven, Walmart, Circle K, Casey's General Stores, Kum & Go, QuikTrip, and -- in case it didn't already have enough on its plate -- BP.

      One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Bob Horn of Kansas City-based Horn, Aylward & Bandy called the ruling a great order, frankly, according to the Kansas City Star. Another attorney, George Zelcs of Korein Tillery in Chicago, called the case a bellwether for other hot fuel suits.

      That may be true, but the suit is hardly hot fuel's first rodeo. In 2009, Costco settled a suit alleging that it sold consumers in 25 states hot gas. The settlement required Costco locations in 14 states to install new pumps that deliver slightly more fuel when the gas's temperature is above a certain degree.

      Judge Vratil, who oversaw that settlement as well, dismissed retailers' argument that the mandate would interfere with the industry requirement that they sell gas at 231 cubic inches.

      Vratil wrote that the retailers had not shown ... that state regulation actually prohibits them from adjusting the size of a gallon of motor fuel to account for thermal expansion.

      All available data indicate that consumers are paying dearly for fuel that isn't being sold at the proper temperature. The attorneys in the Costco suit estimated that their clients lost between $40 and $100 a year, assuming that they regularly bought their gas at Costco. A 2006 investigation by the Star found that U.S. consumers are spending about $2.3 billion more for gasoline and diesel this year than they otherwise would if fuel pumps were adjusted to account for expansion of hot fuel.

      And with the economy still struggling, and gas prices likely to rise again, every penny counts.

      A Kansas federal judge granted class action status this week to two lawsuits alleging that multiple retailers are ripping off consumers by selling them hot...

      Amazon Kindle Tops Consumer Reports Ratings

      iPad's images 'stunning' but device is a 'compromise'

      New e-book readers keep hitting the market, yet a veteran model, the Amazon Kindle e-book reader tops Consumer Reports first full ratings of these devices.

      Despite improvement to the rival Barnes & Noble Nook e-book reader and the arrival of Apples iPad tablet computer, which offers e-reader capability, Amazons Kindle is still the best choice for most consumers. The report and Ratings of e-book readers is featured in the July issue of Consumer Reports and on www.ConsumerReports.org.

      Consumer Reports testers recently put nine e-book readers through comprehensive lab tests. Amazons Kindle, $260, and its super-sized sibling, the Kindle DX, $490, had crisper, more readable type than any other model in the Ratings and slightly better than the Apple iPad, whose e-reading capabilities were assessed but excluded from the ratings (see below).

      The Kindles were among the fastest at refreshing and turning pages. For most users, the lower-priced Kindle is a better choice than the DX because of its lighter weight and smaller size, unless extra real estate is needed for reading content such as e-textbooks.

      Two e-readers from Sony the Daily Edition PRS900BC, $400, and the Touch Edition PRS600SC, $280, were solid performers in Consumer Reports lab tests and noted for their versatility including their ability to be used as digital notepads for text or drawings. However, the Daily Edition is expensive and heavy and the Touch Edition is among the rated models that do not feature unlimited, free, 3G wireless data network access which means consumers cannot download books whenever and wherever they want.

      Consumer Reports found that Barnes & Nobles Nook is among the faster models at turning pages, but its type was not quite as crisp as the Kindles and it weighs more even though both models have the same 6-inch screen size. Navigating content on the Nook was more complicated and touch controls were nonintuitive.

      Consumer Reports also tested e-readers from three lesser-known brands the Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro, $170, the BeBook Neo, $300, and the iRex DR 800SG, $400 and found that all were undistinguished at best.

      The Apple iPad as an E-Book Reader

      Consumer Reports did not include the Apple iPad in its e-reader Ratings because it is a computer with e-book capabilities, not a dedicated e-book reader. The iPads iBook app, one of at least three available for the device, offers fast page turns, with a dazzling virtual image one page curling back to reveal another, and the full-color screen is more eye-catching than the monochrome displays on the e-book readers.

      Type on its LCD touch screen is fine, though it is slightly less crisp than that of the best e-book readers. Compared to the most expensive e-book reader tested, Amazons Kindle DX, $490, Apples iPad is more expensive costing $500 and up and substantially heavier at 24 ounces versus the Kindle DXs weight of 19 ounces. Consumer Reports recommends buying the iPad for e-books only if consumers are willing to compromise to get a multifunction device.

      Amazon Kindle Tops Consumer Reports Ratings...