Current Events in December 2012

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    How women can make more money than men

    Separate occupations may make the difference

    Why is is that -- in so many cases -- women earn less money than men? According to a large-scale survey of 20 industrialized countries it may be because they're doing the same job.

    Researchers from the universities of Cambridge in the UK, and Lakehead in  Canada, found that the more women and men keep to different trades and professions, the more equal is the overall pay average for the two sexes in a country.

    They say the surprising results are due to the fact that when there are few men in an occupation, women have more chance to get to the top and earn more. But where there are more equal numbers of men and women working in an occupation the men dominate the high-paying jobs.

    The research, published in the journal Sociology, compared the degree to which men and women are working in different professions with the gap between their pay.

    Equality and gaps

    Pay was most equal in Slovenia, where women on average earn slightly more than men, and in Mexico, Brazil, Sweden and Hungary, where women earn almost as much as men on average. In these countries men and women work in different occupations to a greater extent than in many of the other countries the researchers looked at.

    In other countries such as Japan, the Czech Republic, Austria and Netherlands, women are more likely to work in the same occupations as men, and the gap between their pay and men's is higher than average. The UK was higher than average among the 20 countries for inequality in pay.

    The researchers used statistics for each country on the proportion of women and men in each occupation, and the overall average gap in pay. They correlated these to show the relationships between workplace segregation of the sexes and the gap in their pay.

    Positive segregation?

    "Higher overall segregation tends to reduce male advantage and improve the position of women," the researchers say in their paper. The greater the degree of overall segregation, the less the possibility exists for discrimination against women and so there is more scope for women to develop progressive careers. For instance, within nursing men disproportionately fill the senior positions...but the fewer the number of male nurses, the more the senior positions must be filled by women.

    "Perhaps our most important finding is that, at least for these industrially developed countries, overall segregation and the vertical [pay gap] dimension are inversely related,” the researchers conclude. “The higher the overall segregation, the lower the advantage to men. This is directly contrary to popular assumptions."

    Why is is that -- in so many cases -- women earn less money than men? According to a large-scale survey of 20 industrialized countries it may be because t...

    Instagram to users: Hey, thanks for giving us your property

    Facebook-owned site asserts right to sell users' photos to advertisers

    Like to post stuff on the Web? Sure you do. It's yours after all, right? Umm, well, actually, it probably isn't once you've posted it.

    Read the privacy policies and terms of use of the vast majority of Internet sites and you'll find that material posted there by users becomes the property of the site. This is not a bad thing, as the world would descend the rest of the way into chaos if every tiny bit of every Web site were owned by various individuals.

    However, few Web sites have gone as far in asserting ownership of posted content as Facebook's Instagram. The photo-sharing site recently updated its privacy policy to explicitly give it the right to sell user-posted photos to advertisers without any notification or compensation to the user.

    The new policy takes effect January 16. If you want to opt out, you'll need to delete your account before then. There is no opt-out provision other than quitting the site entirely.

    In other words, post a nice photo of your dog Spot eating Purina kibble and you may soon see Spot on a billboard, but neither you nor Spot will be the richer for it. Spot will still have to buy his own kibble.

    Photos of children

    More ominously, the new rules would allow the company to use images of children as young as 13 without their parents' permission.

    Instagram's reasoning goes like this: You must say you are 13 or older to sign up for the service. The assumption is that when parents allow you to sign up, they are aware that you may become fodder for advertising, or worse.

    There's also the little matter of photographing strangers. Amateur photographers -- just about everybody these days -- think nothing of snapping photos of people on the street or in other public or private venues and posting them on the Web, something no commercial photogrpher would dare do.

    Using a photo of someone for commercial purposes without their permission is a serious matter and all photographers worth their camera strap always get a signed release before using such likenesses. (News photos are a slightly different matter).

    Cookies & logs too

    Here's the notice posted recently by Instagram:

    "We may share your information as well as information from tools like cookies, log files, and device identifiers and location data with organizations that help us provide the service to you... (and) third-party advertising partners."

    "To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you," Instagram added in its terms of use.

    The change is not going down well in the social media world, where one poster called it "suicide."

    But look at it from Facebook's perspective. Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram in April, even though the site has nearly no revenue.

    This is not unusual in Internetland, where the attitude generally is that if a site gets big enough fast enough it will be too big to fail, even though no one has figured out a business model.

    Or as Facebook marketing executive Carolyn Everson put it earlier this month: "Eventually we'll figure out a way to monetize Instagram." Whether anyone who would make such a statement should be called a marketing executive is another story.

    None of this is really very surprising, though. Facebook has stumbled into one pitfall after another as it tries to fiddle with privacy issues, attempting to install a rational business model that some would say shoud have been thought through before the site was ever started. 

    It's a good thing civil engineers don't work this way. They'd start building bridges and railroads without knowing where they were supposed to end up. As long as they were big enough, maybe it wouldn't matter?

    Like to post stuff on the Web? Sure you do. It's yours after all, right? Umm, well, actually, it isn't once you've posted it.Read the privacy policies an...

    Buckeyballs finally go away

    The magnets endangered children and trivialized the legacy of a great thinker

    If you haven't started your Buckeyball collection, it's too late. The company that makes the magnetic toys has finally bowed to pressure from federal safety regulators and is going out of business.

    The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has for years contended that the small rare-earth magnets are dangerous because children can swallow them and be severely injured.

    There have in recent years been about 1,700 cases per year of small children swallowing the magnets, which can clump together inside the body and cause intestinal obstructions and other serious health problems, the commission contends.

    Buckeyball manufacturer Maxfield & Oberton Holdings has resisted the commission's efforts but the CPSC recently filed a court action demanding that the company stop making the toys, warn consumers the Buckeyballs are dangerous and offer them a refund, as 11 other companies have already done.

    "Buckeyballs will go the way of Crystal Pepsi and the DeLorean," said Craig Zucker, the company's CEO, perhaps elevating the importance of the doomed product.

    Selling til the end

    Zucker is making the most of its going-out-of-business sale. The company's Web site displays a large clock that is counting down the seconds until the "Buckeyocalypse," when the dangerous devices fade into history. 

    The Buckeyballs can be linked into a seemingly endless series of shapes -- they are, after all, magnets -- but beyond that, it's hard to grasp their apparently compelling appeal.

    It's not just the CPSC that has been hounding Zucker. The family of the late R. Buckminster Fuller, after whom the balls are named, has filed suit in federal court claiming the company has misappropriated the late futurist's name.

    The Buckeyballs are said to resemble the geodesic domes that Fuller designed in the 1940s, seeing them as an answer to the global shortage of affordable and environmentally friendly housing.

    Information Man

    Unlike the manufacturers of the frivolous and dangerous toys, Fuller was a serious man who devoted his life to the search for ways to improve human life, advance knowledge and alleviate suffering.

    Although he seems doomed to be linked forever with the geodesic dome, Fuller was fervently interested in information technology and had a brilliant grasp of what could be achieved with just a little more processing power.

    When I was a crass undergraduate in one of his Design classes back in the early 1960s, Fuller was already sketching out the topography of the computer program he was developing to store and organize all of the world's information.

    Sound familiar, Google?

    If you haven't started your Buckeyball collection, it's too late. The company that makes the magnetic toys has finally bowed to pressure from federal safet...

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      Senate hearing will examine credit report inaccuracies

      8 million Americans complained of inaccuracies last year

      The three major credit reporting agencies are coming under increasing scrutiny, the latest a Senate hearing called for tomorrow (Wednesday) by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

      Brown, Chairman of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection, said access to credit is critical for getting the economy back on track and creating jobs.

      Brown's office said the hearing will examine the credit reporting market, consumer understanding of credit reports, and expanding oversight of key players in the credit reporting industry.

      8 million complaints

      A report released last week by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that consumers filed 8 million disputes to credit reports last year.

      The CFPB report came on the heels of a multipart investigation by The Columbus Dispatch. The Dispatch analyzed nearly 30,000 consumer credit report complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and attorneys general during a 30-month period beginning in 2009. Dispatch investigative reporters spent more than a year documenting multiple cases of mistaken identities, mixed files, and inaccuracies on credit reports.

      The Columbus Dispatch found that more than half of consumers who filed credit report complaints with the FTC had been unable to resolve their complaints through the normal dispute process with the credit bureaus.

      Brown said he is working to ensure that consumers have access to clear and accurate credit reports and a fair system to dispute inaccurate claims. In March, Brown wrote to CFPB Director Cordray urging the watchdog agency to use its authority under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to investigate and curtail consumer abuses in the credit reporting industry.

      Sen. BrownThe three major credit reporting agencies are coming under increasing scrutiny, the latest a Senate hearing called for tomorrow (Wednesday) b...

      Web sites offer free credit monitoring

      Credit reports and monitoring are slowly becoming more accessible

      The common wisdom is that your credit report is something you have to pay for. But that's increasingly not true. At least two Web sites are now offering not only free credit reports but also free credit monitoring to their users. For several years, consumers have been able to get one free report per year from each credit bureau but free monitoring has been hard to come by.

      The latest free source of credit reports and monitoring is Credit Sesame,  which offers reports from Experian, one of the three major agencies. The others are Equifax and TransUnion.

      Another site, Credit Karma, offers free credit-monitoring services from TransUnion.

      Credit monitoring, as opposed to a credit report, is useful in keeping track of who's looking at your credit record and can provide an early alert to identity theft and other types of fraud.

      “We believe complete financial transparency is a consumer right, which is why we worked so hard to bring free credit monitoring to consumers," said Adrian Nazari, founder and CEO of Credit Sesame. "Your credit score and information on your credit report have a very real impact on your bottom line and determine the cost of your credit and loans. Both ultimately impact your wealth and the quality of your life,”

      For example, on a $250,000, 30-year fixed rate mortgage, a person with a credit score of 760 will qualify for an interest rate that is half a percentage point less than someone with a score of 699 in today’s market. This can equate to saving $20,341 in interest over the life of the loan, Nazari said.

      Credit Sesame also offers free credit scores, aggregated credit information, peer comparison data, bank-level analytics and market monitoring.

      Privacy policies

      While both sites are free, they collect a great deal of information about their registered users. Although their privacy policies state that users' information is not shared with other sites, consumers should read the privacy policies carefully to be sure they understand what use will be made of their personal information.

      Many Web sites offering financial information use what is known as "lead-generation" advertising, meaning that they are paid -- often generously -- each time someone clicks on a link on their site that leads to an application for a credit card, mortgage, car loan or other financial product.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has begun investigating the credit agencies and is likely to impose new regulations to protect consumers. The bureau recently warned consumers that the credit score they buy from the agencies may not be the same as the score lenders use to make decisions about loans and interest rates.

      The common wisdom is that your credit report is something you have to pay for. But that's increasingly not true. At least two Web sites are now offering no...

      Survey: Kroger pharmacy tops in customer service

      Researchers say customer service tipped the scales to Kroger

      There are many store types that have been affected by the dominance of national retail chains and small neighborhood pharmacies are among them.

      With huge stores like Walgreens and CVS, many consumers no longer have access to small mom and pop pharmacies since many of them have closed down.

       However, some consumers choose large multipurpose stores for their medication, since other types of shopping can be done like buying food or housewares products. It seems the convenience of buying medication  along with groceries and other items heavily contributed to privately-owned pharmacies disappearing.

      Probably the best aspect of going to a smaller neighborhood pharmacy is the personal one-on-one service you receive from either the store owner or one of the staff members.

      In many cases each worker knows your name and knows the type of medication you're on, compared to many chain pharmacies were customers are likely to get a new person each visit.

      So the question is: Does the convenience of being able to pick up your medication along with the other items you need, worth sacrificing the personal level of customer service that you’re likely to get at a small neighborhood pharmacy?

      Customer service

      Consumers rate Kroger

      According to a Canadian research company that surveyed 1,500 U.S. consumers on this subject, customer service is most important to folks, and even though large chains may not compare to mom and pop pharmacies in this area, some of them provide better customer service than others.

      The research firm Empathica Inc. questioned consumers about what they thought of the pharmacy chains CVS, Kroger, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Walmart, and Costco--which happen to be the biggest chains in the United States that deal with prescription medication.

      The results of the survey showed that Kroger ranked the highest in a number of customer service categories compared to other pharmacy chains both big and small.

      The three areas of customer service that the survey covered were choice, meaning if the pharmacy provided options for the customer when it came time to buying certain kinds of medication.

      The second criteria was service, in terms of how attentive the store associate was to customers, and the third area was trust, which more than likely depended on how knowledgeable the store associate or pharmacist was in dealing with consumers.

      Kroger trumped the other large retailers in all three areas of customer service.

      “Retail pharmacies can create a win-win relationship with consumers by providing exemplary customer service; in turn, there is an opportunity for customers to work for their primary pharmacy as brand advocates,” said Dr. Gary Edwards, CEO of Empathica, in a statement.

      “There is little room for winning a price war in pharmacy retail. The real battlefront for pharmacies is in customer service and convenience.”

      Not everyone agrees

      Although Kroger’s pharmacy ranked high in the survey, the company didn’t fare quite as well among some of our readers.

      Melinda of Bowling Green, Ky., explained in her ConsumerAffairs post that she was given a lot of misinformation about the medication she's taking.

      “The last four times we have been to the Kroger pharmacy on Scottsville Road in Bowling Green, Ky., we have had issues,” she wrote in a posting to ConsumerAffairs. “Three times I was told I didn’t have refills on my prescriptions when in fact I did. The last time they said I had no refills, they went so far without my consent to call my doctor for a refill.”

      “Today, my credit card was charged $50 too much for a prescription. I called the pharmacy, the girl admitted it was a mistake, instructed me to come in and she’d refund the money instead of just crediting my credit card that was used to pay for the prescription.”

      “I contacted the store manager and after some time, he called me back and told me the pharmacy did not make a mistake and they would refund the difference anyway, but I still had to come back in,” Melinda explained.

      Loyalty programs

      After the survey, researches also determined that large pharmacies need to do a better job of mimicking the good practices of their competitors and also step up efforts to offer more loyalty programs for customers.

      The researchers also said that some pharmacies have good loyalty programs in place, but do a poor job of communicating those programs to customers.

      Only one-third of customers that went to large retailers for their medication knew of the current loyalty programs, compared to 43 percent of customers who went to specialty drug retailers, said researchers.

      The survey also showed that 32 percent of customers that go to specialty drug chains always find promotions that offer good prices, compared to 44 percent of customers who go to mass retail chains and said the same.

      Edwards said it’s imperative for brands to establish deeper relationships with its customers by better communicating store deals and loyalty programs, and by focusing more on personalized customer service, rather than trying to beat competitors for the best prices.

      “To build a stronger, more loyal customer base, mass retailers and specialty drug chain retailers can look to what the other has to offer,” said Edwards.

      “Rather than focusing exclusively on general customer service or in-store promotions, all pharmacy retailers have an opportunity to better manage the key moments of truth on the customer journey.”

      “This includes providing more choices, offering superior service throughout the experience and promoting loyalty programs to create deeper relationships with customers. When customers experience exceptionality in these areas, regardless of price, it definitely builds brand advocacy,” said Edwards.

      There are many store types that have been affected by the dominance of national retail chains and small neighborhood pharmacies are among them....

      Toyota to pay record $17.35 million for unintended acceleration problems

      The fine is in connection with unwanted acceleration caused by floor mat pedal entrapment

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is throwing the book at Toyota.

      The automaker has agreed to pay $17.35 million -- the maximum fine allowable under the law -- in response to the agency's assertion that the automaker failed to report a safety defect to the federal government in a timely manner. It's the single highest civil penalty amount ever paid to NHTSA for violations stemming from a recall.

      "Safety is our highest priority," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "With today’s announcement, I expect Toyota to rigorously reinforce its commitment to adhering to United States safety regulations."

      Disturbing trend

      Earlier this year, NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation began noticing a trend in floor mat pedal entrapment in 2010 Lexus RX 350s in Vehicle Owner Questionnaires (VOQs) and Early Warning Reporting data.

      In May, NHTSA contacted Toyota regarding the trend, and a month later Toyota advised NHTSA that it was aware of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX 350s since 2009. Toyota's own technicians and dealer technicians reported that certain alleged incidents of unwanted acceleration had been caused by floor mat pedal entrapment.

      In June, Toyota advised NHTSA that it would conduct a recall of 154,036 Model Year 2010 Lexus RX 350 and Model Year 2010 RX 450h vehicles to address floor mat pedal entrapment.

      Federal law requires all auto manufacturers to notify NHTSA within five business days of determining that a safety defect exists or that the vehicle is not in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards and to promptly conduct a recall.

      "It's critical to the safety of the driving public that manufacturers report safety defects in a timely manner," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation’s highways."

      Review of safety procedures

      As part of today's settlement, Toyota and its U.S. based subsidiaries agreed to make internal changes to their quality assurance and review of safety-related issues in the United States, and to improve their ability to take into account the possible consequences of potential safety-related defects.

      “Toyota is dedicated to the safety of our customers, and we continue to strengthen our data collection and evaluation process to ensure we are prepared to take swift action to meet customers' needs,” said Ray Tanguay, chief quality officer of Toyota North America. “We agreed to this settlement in order to avoid a time-consuming dispute and to focus fully on our shared commitment with NHTSA to keep drivers safe.”

      The last time Toyota faced civil penalties was in 2010 when the automaker agreed to pay $48.8 million as a result of three separate investigations into the automaker's handling of auto recalls. The automaker paid maximum civil penalties for violations stemming from the pedal entrapment, sticky pedal and steering relay rod recalls.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is throwing the book at Toyota. The automaker has agreed to pay $17.35 million -- the maximum ...

      News just gets worse for Apple

      Judge rejects company's request to ban certain Samsung smartphones

      At the start of the year Apple was most likely the hottest company on the planet. Consumers lined up for the chance to buy its products. And its $1 billion dollar judgment against its closest rival, Samsung, only brightened its outlook.

      But lately things haven't been going that well for Apple. The latest blow came in court, the same place it achieved his historic victory over Samsung. A judge ruled on Apple's request to ban the sale of a number of Samsung smartphones and the answer was "no."

      Last summer a federal court jury in California found that Samsung had infringed on a number of Apple design patents in the development of some smartphones and tablets. After the $1 billion jury award, Apple returned to court asking that Samsung products that had been found to violate Apple's patents be removed from the marketplace.

      The evidence

      "Apple's evidence does not establish that any of Apple's three design patents covers a particular feature that actually drives consumer demand," the judge in the case wrote. "The Court further found that though there was some evidence of loss of market share, Apple had not established that Samsung's infringement of Apple's design patents caused that loss."

      In September, when Apple introduced the iPhone 5 and the latest mobile operating system, iOS 6, it suffered a major embarrassment when its maps function proved not ready for prime time. The company had jettisoned the Google Maps feature, saying its new Apple Maps would be far superior.

      Consumers, however, complained of distorted and missing images and information that was not always accurate. As a result, Google last week issued a new maps app for the iPhone.

      Tough three months on Wall Street

      But perhaps most disturbing to Apple and its investors has been the company's stock performance in the current quarter. Apple shares began 2012 at $411 and hit $705 on September 21 -- a 71 percent gain in less than nine months.

      But since then Apple shares have tumbled, hitting a 2012 low of $501 a share in Monday's trading. While it is still up from the start of the year, its losses from its high are significant.

      As Apple's stock price fell, several analysts lowered their price targets, which seemed to lead to even more selling. While Apple remains a dynamic company and a consumer technology leader, analysts seem to be tempering their views of the company, suggesting it's mortal after all.

      At the start of the year Apple was most likely the hottest company on the planet. Consumers lined up for the chance to buy its products. And its $1 billion...

      U.S. workers optimistic about jobs, economy in 2013

      Employees appear more upbeat about opportunities for promotions and the job market

      As 2012 draws to a close, there appears to be an air of growing confidence among American workers.

      A recent survey by Randstad U.S., reveals workers are hopeful for a better year in 2013 when it comes to jobs and the economy. According to the survey, 57 percent of employees believe they are likely to get a pay raise in 2013 -- up 10 percent from last year.

      Additionally, most employees (59 percent) believe the job market will pick up next year. Workers also feel positive about their companies, with 47 percent predicting their employers will expand their workforce in 2013 and 30 percent believing they will receive a promotion (up seven and six percent, respectively from October 2011).

      However, nearly half (47 percent) of workers feel the economy has had a negative effect on their careers, yet only 15 percent of employees believe they might lose their jobs (down five percent from 2011). At the same time, most employees (78 percent) believe their companies have a great future.

      "The outlook for next year certainly looks brighter for most employees. With the election and economic issues at home and abroad, a cloud of uncertainty had caused many employees to remain skeptical around future jobs and employability in 2012," said Jim Link, managing director of human resources for Randstad US. "Today we see employees are very positive about their future prospects and are hopeful to regain any economic momentum lost. As optimism increases, employee engagement will be increasingly important for companies' retention efforts. This is why it is so valuable for employers to analyze and understand what motivates their most important asset – talent."

      Looking for improvement

      Other data indicate employees are more optimistic when it comes to employer benefits and employment:

      • Just 16 percent of employees believe they will get a pay cut in 2013, down eight percent from last year
      • Forty-one percent of employees believe their company will cut back on benefits in 2013, down six percent from 2011
      • Only a third of employees, 33 percent, believe their company will fire people in the new year

      When it comes to the job search, 47 percent of employees indicate they plan to explore their options when the job market picks up. While this number is down three percent from last quarter, it remains a top concern for companies as some struggle to retain top talent.

      Most employees indicate positive attitudes towards their current jobs with over two-thirds, 68 percent, indicating their company makes an effort to keep them engaged. Also, 62 percent of workers expect to grow their careers with their current employers. Of workers surveyed, 79 percent indicated they are inspired to do their best and 77 percent are proud to work for their company or organization.

      As 2012 draws to a close, there appears to be an air of growing confidence among American workers. A recent survey by Randstad U.S., reveals workers are h...

      More employers to hand out year-end bonuses

      'Improved circumstances' is cited as a reason for the improved generosity

      Did your boss give you a year-end bonus in 2011? He might this year.

      A survey of human resources executives conducted by outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas shows that 72 percent of employers plan to offer some type of year-end bonus this year, compared with just 53 percent a year ago.

      According to the survey, nearly 28 percent of bosses will hand out bonus checks based on the company’s annual performance. Another 17 percent said their companies will award bonuses to a select group of employees based on individual performance.

      Among the approximately 100 responses to an e-mail poll distributed in November, only 21 percent said no bonuses would be distributed this year. In contrast, the 2011 survey saw more than 43 percent say no bonuses would be handed out.

      Improving economy cited

      “Many companies enjoyed increased profits this year, along with increased productivity,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The fact that they achieved that without a rapid acceleration in hiring or capital investment means that existing employees were asked to deliver better results with fewer resources. Even with many companies still not enjoying pre-recession business levels, it is clear, at least among our small sampling of employers, that they are duly recognizing the hard work and achievements of their workforce.”

      Companies that may not have been flush with cash are trying to find ways to reward employee performance. According to the survey, 14 percent will award a nominal ($100 or less) monetary award to all employees and 13 percent will give employees some type of non-monetary gift as a sign of appreciation.

      Further indication of companies’ improved circumstances this year is evident in the fact that 25 percent of employers plan to increase the size of year-end bonuses this year, compared to less than 17 percent who said the same a year ago. The percentage saying bonuses would be smaller fell from 8.3 percent a year ago to 6.2 percent in the 2012 survey.

      “Most employers understand that workers want to be recognized for their contribution to the company. It doesn’t have to be a Wall Street sized bonus check,” said Challenger. “Many workers would be happy with a $25 gift certificate to a local restaurant or store. Many would probably be happy with an extra day or two of paid vacation at the end of the year. Many are simply happy to have a job in this economy.”  

      Did your boss give you a year-end bonus in 2011? He might this year. A survey of human resources executives conducted by outplacement consultancy Challeng...

      Without assistance, home sales and prices continue to rise

      Homeowners decisions not to sell keeps inventory down

      Over the last four years, since home prices plunged at the start of the credit meltdown, there have been many voices urging help for the housing market. Not surprisingly, many came from the real estate industry.

      And in fact Congress provided a hefty tax incentive to first-time home buyers in 2009 and extended it into the first half of 2010. For a time, sales rose and prices held steady but just as soon as the tax break expired, a flood of distressed properties dragged prices down again amid a scarcity of buyers.

      People who bought at the top of the market, in 2005 and 2006, found their homes were worth much less than what they paid for them. In some overheated markets like Phoenix and Las Vegas, values dropped by 50 percent.

      Cautious lenders

      Understandably, mortgage lenders were somewhat careful about making loans. Not knowing how much more home values would fall they demanded 20 percent or more as a down payment. Congress passed new regulations requiring lenders to retain ownership of mortgages made to unqualified borrowers but failed to define what a “qualified” borrower was. Erring on the side of caution, lenders demanded high credit scores. The number of buyers began to dry up.

      Things looked pretty bleak for a while but, starting in late 2011, sales and prices somehow began to show some signs of life. Now, in its November National Housing Report, RE/MAX reports home sales rose 15.7 percent over November 2011. In October, sales were up 17.8 percent year-over-year.

      November's median sale price was up 3.6 percent from October and 6.9 percent from November 2011.

      Reasons for recovery

      What's behind the increasing health of the housing market? New tax incentives? No. Relaxed lending standards? Not really.

      Homeowners and banks appear to both be contributing to the improved environment by not pulling houses on the market. Homeowners aren't selling, and in truth many can't, since they remain under water. Banks that have properties in default and slow to foreclose and put them on the market.

      As a result, the available homes for sale nationwide has dropped sharply. According to RE/MAX, the average number of homes for sale is now 29.1 percent lower than last year. Low inventory levels are having a negative impact on home sales in many markets, where there are more buyers than homes for sale. Competition leads to higher prices.

      Hopes for 2013

      "2012 has been a great turn-around year for housing, with prices and sales moving beyond where we were last year," said Margaret Kelly, CEO of RE/MAX, LLC. "We're ending the year the way we started it, with better than expected performance. If we can get more reasonable regulation from Washington and if mortgage availability improves, 2013 will see a much stronger housing market."

      But part of the turnaround has been accomplished without the aid of mortgage lenders. Investors, who usually make purchases with cash, have consistently accounted for nearly 30 percent of sales each month. Even though they have concentrated on distressed properties, they have nonetheless helped keep the inventory down.

      Over the last four years, since home prices plunged at the start of the credit crisis, there have been many voices urging help for the housing market. Not ...

      Filling up your kids on fewer calories

      Offer smaller quantities of healthy snacks such as fruits and vegetables

      It's no secret that childhood obesity is reaching alarming levels. Thirty-two percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

      One of the many factors leading to the obesity epidemic is increased snacking by children. Today they eat around three snacks daily while thirty years ago they ate only one.

      Parents want to ensure that their children snack healthfully, but restricting or limiting children’s snacking can backfire.

      Children in homes where parents carefully regulate snacking were found to eat more unhealthy snacks in an unregulated environment than children with less restrictive parents.

      The snack test

      Researchers Brian Wansink, Ph.D., Mitsuru Shimizu, Ph.D., and Adam Brumberg set out to discover whether certain types of snacks would lead children to feel full while consuming fewer calories. 201 students in the third through sixth grade were given either a plate of potato chips, a plate of vegetables, a plate of cheese, or a plate of vegetables and cheese while watching some of their favorite afterschool cartoons.

      They were asked about their fullness at the beginning of the experiment, after watching one episode of a cartoon, and again after watching a second episode of a cartoon.

      Healthy snacks for kids

      Children who ate the vegetable and cheese snack plate needed significantly fewer calories than the children who ate the plate of potato chips to achieve satiety. Further, children from low-involvement families (families which spent less time eating meals together or interacting with each other while eating) ate more potato chips than other children when given potato chips to snack on.

      However, children from low-involvement families and overweight children showed the greatest reduction in the amount of calories consumed when eating the cheese and vegetable snack instead of potato chips. Overweight and obese children ate 76% fewer calories when they were given the cheese and vegetable snack while other children averaged a 60% reduction in calories eaten. Both groups reported being as full when eating the Cheese and veggie snack as they did when eating chips.

      Snack tips

      Use these results to help your child eat fewer calories when snacking, try:

      • Having more nutritious snacks available instead of eliminating snacking
      • Substituting a healthier snack like veggies and cheese in place of chips on a regular basis
      • Offering smaller quantities of a variety of healthy snacks (multiple kinds of vegetables or fruit) on a plate. Variety tends to stimulate consumption; increasing the healthy options available can lead to more of them being selected and eaten.
      • Encouraging children to be mindful of internal cues and stop eating when they feel full

      It's no secret that childhood obesity is reaching alarming levels. Thirty-two percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese according to the ...

      Average gasoline price below $4 in every state

      The last time that was true was November 2008

      The average price of gasoline, as tracked by AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Survey, shows a milestone, of sorts. The average price of a gallon of gasoline is now below $4 a gallon in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

      Until this week Hawaii was the only state where the average price topped $4 a gallon. While you are sure to find a station here or there on the islands that charges that much or more, when all the stations in the state are factored in, the average price today is $3.971.

      Hawaii is habitually the most expensive state for gasoline and its price has been above $4 for nearly four years. The last time all U.S. states recorded average prices below that benchmark came in late 2008, when oil and gasoline prices plunged in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the resulting credit crunch.

      $1 gap

      Today there is a more than $1 a gallon gap between the most expensive state for gasoline and the cheapest. Missouri reached a milestone of its own this week, as its statewide average price fell below the $3 mark, to $2.946 a gallon.

      Oklahoma is poised to drop below that threshold, with an average price today of $3.006 a gallon. Both Missouri and Oklahoma are enjoying prices that are slightly lower than they were one year ago. Nationwide, today's average price of $3.236 is only a penny higher than at this time last year.

      What's responsible for the break consumers are getting at the gas pump? The futures market has been quieter than usual. With the “fiscal cliff” looming and things fairly quiet on the geopolitical front, traders have been less active.

      That's made old fashioned supply and demand more important in setting prices and at the moment, the U.S. has plenty of supply to more than offset the slight rise in demand.

      The average price of gasoline, as tracked by AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Survey, shows a milestone, of sorts. The average price of a gallon of gasoline is now b...

      Diet Pepsi tinkers with its formula, adding a new sweetener

      Sodastream is taking some of the fizz out of soft-drink sales

      When it comes to popular food and beverage brands, most consumers would probably be against changing the formula or recipe, but that’s exactly what’s happening over at PepsiCo., as the company is using a new sweetener for its lower calorie product Diet Pepsi, and it's doing a good job of sneaking the change past consumers.

      The reason for the change has more to do with preserving the sweet flavor of Diet Pepsi for longer periods rather than changing the taste.

      Currently, the carbonated beverage contains the sweetener aspartame, but soon an ingredient called acesulfame potassium will be added, which makes the original flavor of the soda last longer. Rumors of the impending change were reported by ConsumerAffairs last August.

      The additive is used in many food and beverage products like ice cream, fruit juices, yogurts and a host of other items. Even mouthwash and tooth paste contain the chemical preservative.

      Although Pepsi isn’t hiding the fact that it’s making the ingredient change, it’s safe to say the company doesn’t want to cause a consumer stir by making a big announcement, which could make Diet Pepsi lovers think the taste is going to be altered.

      "Ensure consistency"

      In a quiet statement made by PepsiCo, the company explained the reason for the ingredient change. “To ensure consistency with every sip,” the company said it is adding a “very small amount” of acesulfame potassium.

      The addition of the chemical ingredient comes on the heels of not only a huge new advertising push by Pepsi—including a $50 million deal with the pop singer Beyoncé to be a spokeswoman for the brand—but also right after a back-and-forth began with the company that makes SodaStream.

      In recent months, the SodaStream makers created a TV commercial that urges consumers to shun big-brand sodas and make their own beverages at home.

      If you’ve seen the new commercial, it shows several people using the carbonation machine while plastic soda bottles--that resemble Pepsi and Coke products--explode each time the SodaStream button is pushed.

      Banned in Britain

      Clearcast, an organization that pre-approves commercials for British programming, banned the SodaStream ad in the U.K. saying it unfairly led consumers to think that making soda at home is better for the environment because bottles aren’t being used.

      “The ad could be seen to tell people not to go to supermarkets and buy soft drinks, instead help to save the environment by buying a SodaStream. We thought it was denigration of the bottled drinks market,” said Clearcast.

      In a retaliatory blow, SodaStream not only expanded the UK-banned commercial to 59 other countries, but it also purchased an extremely pricey ad slot for this year’s Super Bowl, which is the most-watched television event of the year.

      With SodaStream growing in popularity, both Pepsi and Coke are starting to react with new product strategies and it’s rumored that both companies will be releasing their own versions of soda-making machines and syrups in the near future.  

      In the past year market share for SodaStream went up by 38 percent, which shows just how well the home soda company has been doing since it first came on to the market.

      In a move that’s very David and Goliath-esque, SodaStream seems to be extremely eager to take on the soda giants of Pepsi who have the No. 3 beverage in the U.S. in terms of sales. Coca-Cola stands at No. 1.

      Whether Pepsi’s advertising push and its new additive will bring the company a heftier amount of success in the coming year remains to be seen, but Pepsi spokespeople say cans and bottles with the new ingredient will be in stores and vending machines in the upcoming weeks.

      Some stores in the U.S. are already carrying Diet Pepsi with acesulfame potassium.

      “It’s not like a light switch,” said PepsiCo representative Andrea Canabal. “It’ll start appearing as shelf space clears."

      Acesulfame potassium has been approved eight different times by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1988, and has been deemed safe, though it’s reported to be 100 times sweeter than sugar.

      In addition, nutrition experts say the non-caloric preservative doesn’t store up in your body and is quickly absorbed after consumption.

      When it comes to popular food and beverage brands, most consumers would probably be against changing the formula or recipe, but that’s exactly what&r...

      Is your hair making you fat?

      Study finds black women may avoid exercise because of hair issues

      Exercise is good for you. Everybody knows that. But it has drawbacks -- for one thing, it can make you sweat, which can be a problem for women with certain hair styles.

      That may sound fanciful but it's not. In fact, a recent study surveyed 103 African-American women and found that nearly 40 percent of the women reported avoiding exercise at times because of their hair, according to a report published Online First by Archives of Dermatology,a JAMA Network publication.

      Rebecca R. Hall, M.D., of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C., and colleagues surveyed 103 African-American women, average age 42, about their hair care practices and physical activity.

      “Hair maintenance in African-American women in this study limited their participation in physical activity with more than half of the women exercising less than 75 minutes/week and 26.2 percent reporting 0 minutes of exercise per week,” the authors said.

      Most of the women (62.1 percent) wore their hair in a relaxed, chemically-straightened style and most washed their hair every one to two weeks (81.6 percent).

      Specifically, the researchers found that hair concerns caused 35.9 percent of the women to avoid swimming, while 29.1 percent avoided aerobic and gym activities.

      Women with normal scalps (not dry or oily) were significantly more like to participate in aerobic/gym activities than those with scalp complaints. Women who exercised less because of hair concerns were 2.9 times less likely to exercise more than 150 minutes per week, according to study results.

      Because hair care and hairstyle maintenance can be costly for African-American women and because of the relative infrequency of hair washing needed to maintain many common hairstyles they may opt to avoid exercise and the associated sweating, according to the study.

      Long-term, this is bad news for black women's health, the researchers said.

      “Effective strategies to promote physical activity in African-American women, known to disproportionately have obesity and associated sedentary diseases, must include addressing dermatologic barriers to physical activity with strategies that address hairstyle maintenance," the study said.

      The authors said physicians need to be aware of these issues when counseling their African-American patients.

      Exercise is good for you. Everybody knows that. But it has drawbacks -- for one thing, it can make you sweat, which can be a problem for women with certain...

      Guns, mental health, video games top post-shooting agenda

      'Everything's on the table' in the wake of the tragedy

      Friday's horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., appear to have improved chances that gun laws, ammunition sales video games and mental health policies will all get new scrutiny.

      President Obama said in his remarks in Newtown Sunday night that he will bring the powers of his office to bear on “changes” to make sure there are no more mass shootings. While it is widely accepted that he was referring to gun laws, other areas are also likely to get a review.

      Stock prices of gun makers tumbled on Wall Street as talk of gun control surged. Shares of Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. fell as much as 5% on Monday after sinking more than 4% on Friday.

      Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a National Rifle Association (NRA) member and supporter of gun rights, said over the weekend that “everything should be on the table” to prevent future massacres. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said she would push for a reinstatement of the ban on the sale of “assault weapons,” which expired several years ago.

      Weapons of war

      “As I have said many times before—and now repeat in the wake of yet another tragedy—weapons of war don’t belong on our streets or in our theaters, shopping malls and, most of all, our schools,” Feinstein said. “I hope and trust that in the next session of Congress there will be sustained and thoughtful debate about America’s gun culture and our responsibility to prevent more loss of life.”

      Some gun enthusiasts are beginning to talk openly about restrictions on ammunition purchases. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton doesn't understand people's need for high-capacity ammo magazines, he writes in Monday's column.

      "Neither do I get the objection to registering guns or licensing owners," he says. "Or requiring a license to buy ammunition, for that matter — not when a slight inconvenience could save lives."

      Skelton says that the hunting culture that he grew up with has been replaced with "a narrower gun worship based on the fear of other humans."

      There have been periodic suggestions that restricting ammunition purchases to small quantities could prevent at least some of the worst mass attacks that rely on high-capacity assault weapons. A decade or so ago, the idea was floated as a possible way around the Second Amendment ban on gun control.

      The National Rifle Association (NRA) has maintained its usual post-massacre silence. It went so far as to temporarily take down its Facebook page, temporarily redirecting it to the main page on its Website, just a few days after celebatiing its 1.7 million "Like."

      Mental health

      There is also likely to be a debate about mental health issues. Earlier this year Connecticut state legislators debated proposals “to enhance the care and treatment of persons with psychiatric disabilities in both inpatient and outpatient settings.” But a bill to that effect was defeated after critics said it would have allowed people to be committed against their will and called it discriminatory and a violation of patients' privacy rights.

      And then there are violent video games in which players often assume the role of commandos and shoot opposing avatars in increasingly realistic fashion. While not every violent video game player goes out and shoots up a school, those who have done so were said to be avid players.

      And in some cases, including the most recent case of Adam Lanza, they have dressed themselves as commandos.

      Violent video games

      Over the years a number of studies on the effects of violent video games have reached conflicting conclusions. A February 2011 study from Ryerson University concluded that people who played violent games did not get desensitized to violence or have differences in their “emotional memory.”

      But last week, three days before Lanza's murderous rampage, ConsumerAffairs reported on a study done at Ohio State, where researchers concluded that playing violent video games for an extended period of time tends to color your worldview, causing you to see the world as a violent place best suited to aggressive solutions.

      The researchers say they found that people who played a violent video game for three consecutive days showed increases in aggressive behavior and hostile expectations each day they played. Meanwhile, those who played nonviolent games showed no meaningful changes in aggression or hostile expectations over that period.

      “It’s important to know the long-term causal effects of violent video games, because so many young people regularly play these games,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.

      In the coming weeks, President Obama says he will engage his fellow citizens – from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.

      “As a nation, we are left with some hard questions,” the President said in a speech Sunday night.

      Expect those questions to be asked, and attempts at answers made, in the coming weeks.

      Friday's horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., appear to have improved chances that gun laws, video games and mental he...

      Sprint reaches deal to buy the rest of Clearwire

      The purchase should make Sprint more competitive with AT&T and Verizon

      It was just two months ago that Japanese giant Softbank bought 70% of Sprint for $20 billion, injecting much-needed financial muscle into the third-place wireless carrier.

      Now Sprint is shelling out $2.2 billion to buy the rest of Clearwire Corp., a deal that would greatly expand its wireless spectrum and help it to compete more effectively with market leaders Verizon and AT&T.

      Regulators must approve the purchase.

      "Today's transaction marks yet another significant step in Sprint’s improved competitive position and ability to offer customers better products, more choices and better services," said Sprint CEO Dan Hesse.

      Sprint already owned 51% of Clearwire and the buy-out was widely anticipated following the Softbank deal.

      It's the latest development in a fast-changing wireless market.  T-Mobile and MetroPCS announced plans to merge earlier and Dish Network has won preliminary FCC approval to enter the wireless market.

      It will take a few years for the reconfigured players to get their new networks up and running but by 2016 or so, there should be five big, powerful wireless companies fighting for consumers instead of two dominant carriers and a handful of struggling second-string entrants.

      It was just two months ago that Japanese giant Softbank bought 70% of Sprint for $20 billion, injecting much-needed financial muscle into the third-place w...