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Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Mercedes-Benz of Helicopters

A European rotary-winged aircraft company has teamed up with Mercedes-Benz to outfit its twin-engine utility helicopter for business-luxury transport.

You can almost hear the call echoing through the Austrian Alps: “The top speed of mein SL65 AMG is too low! Get to ze choppah!” Assuming the angst-ridden Salzburg billionaire hadn’t removed the 155-mph limiter from his V-12-powered Mercedes-Benz, he would be right — but just barely. The Eurocopter EC145 won't exceed 167 mph, but the point-to-point convenience a helicopter affords means never missing a last-minute lunch in Vienna. Until now, however, one couldn’t purchase an EC145 with an interior spec'd out by the lux-meisters in Stuttgart.

The European rotary-winged aircraft consortium — and sister company of Airbus under the EADS umbrella — has teamed up with Mercedes-Benz to outfit its twin-engine utility helicopter for business-luxury transport. The lead on the project was undertaken by the company’s Advanced Design Studio in Como, Italy, which pulled design cues from the company’s designo roster of interior packages. Not to compare apples to oranges, the EC145 Mercedes-Benz Style is more akin to a S65 than an SL. Or, with its land-darn-near-anywhere capability, a G-Class SUV.

The rail-mounted seats can be configured for up to eight passengers (think capo, consigliere and six gorillas). The wood and ambient lighting draw influence from Benz’ up-level E-Class and S-Class sedans. Unfortunately, the SLS AMG’s gullwing doors aren’t an available option, as they interfere with the operation of the 145’s rotor. On the plus-side, Eurocopter can outfit the whirlybird with an infrared-suppression system, making it difficult for bad guys armed with Stinger missiles to get a lock on you as you and your lady of the evening snack on strudel and sip a nice riesling.

As for the price, Eurocopter EC145s start at $5.5 million, but the Mercedes-Benz version will reportedly go for closer to €6 million (or approximately $8.5 million).

Cities with the Most Billionaires, 2011

When the U.S. economy was riding high for most of the 20th century, it would have been impossible to imagine a foreign city--especially one in a Communist country--with more of the planet's very richest than New York, home of old-money Wall Street. But that indeed is the case. Today Moscow is the city with the most billionaire residents in the world.

The Russian capital boasts 79 billionaires, a stunning increase of 21 in just one year. That more than edges out No. 2 New York, with 59 billionaires, and No. 3 London with 41. Other cities in the top 15 include such rising stars as Mumbai, Taipei, Sao Paolo and Istanbul. Los Angeles manages a tie for No. 8.

The combined fortunes of Moscow's billionaire population top $375 billion, more privately amassed wealth than in any other city in the world.

Despite New York's relegation to second place, the city remains a favored locale of billionaires, whose collective net worth is $221 billion. The Big Apple boasts some of the most expensive ZIP codes in the U.S., due in part to the real estate prices paid by billionaires in this city. Indeed, many Moscow residents own secondary homes in New York, including fertilizer and coal magnate Andrey Melnichenko, whose wife recently closed on a $12.2 million penthouse apartment. Even the world's richest man, Carlos Slim (home: Mexico City), snatched up a $44 million mansion on Central Park last year.

To compile our list, we tallied the primary residences of all 1,210 billionaires on the 2011 Forbes World's Billionaires list, our annual assessment of people sporting seven-figure or higher fortunes in U.S. dollars. We did not take secondary homes into account for this list.

In the U.S. we stuck strictly to city limits. For example, while a smattering of prominent media barons like Viacom founder Sumner Redstone and T.V. tycoon Haim Saban reside in Beverly Hills, they are not included in the pile of Los Angeles residents since Beverly Hills is its own city (although largely surrounded by Los Angeles).

Here are the the world's five top cities for billionaires:

Istanbul, Turkey scores No. 5.
Photo: Thinkstock

No. 5: Istanbul
Number of Billionaires: 36
Total combined wealth: $60.5 billion

Billionaires include: Turkey's richest person, Mehmet Emin Karamehmet, chairman of mobile phone company Turkcell; Turkey's former richest, finance and retail scion, Husnu Ozyegin; and Macedonian-born Sarik Tara, founder of construction giant, ENKA.

Hong Kong scores No. 4.
Photo: Thinkstock

No. 4: Hong Kong
Number of Billionaires: 40
Total combined wealth: $176.8 billion

Billionaires include: Greater China's richest person, Hutchison Whampoa chairman Li Ka-shing; the Kwok family, the brothers behind Hong Kong's largest real estate developer, SHKP; and Angela Leong, the controversial heiress of Stanley Ho's casino empire.

London scores No. 3.
Photo: Thinkstock

No. 3: London
Number of Billionaires: 41
Total combined wealth: $164.3 billion

Billionaires include: Indian citizen Lakshmi Mittal, the world's sixth-richest man thanks to steel-maker ArcelorMittal; daredevil Virgin founder Richard Branson; and Philip & Christina Green, the married couple behind clothing company Topshop.

New York City scores No. 2.
Photo: Thinkstock

No. 2: New York
Number of Billionaires: 59
Total combined wealth: $220.8 billion

Billionaires include: media mogul and current mayor Michael Bloomberg; fashion designer Ralph Lauren; and real estate developer-turned-reality T.V. celebrity Donald Trump.

Moscow scores No. 1.
Photo: Thinkstock

No. 1: Moscow
Number of Billionaires: 79
Total combined wealth: $375.3 billion

Billionaires include: Russia's richest man, steel magnate Vladmimir Lisin; commodities investor and Chelsea soccer team owner Roman Abramovich; and venture capitalist and Facebook investor Yuri Milner.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

T. Rex Leech & Titanic Bacteria Make Top 10 New Species List

Bioluminescent Mushroom (Mycena luxaeterna) Common name: Eternal light mushroom.  Lighting up the top 10 is a luminescent fungus collected in São
News – Bioluminescent Mushroom (Mycena luxaeterna) Common name: Eternal light mushroom. Lighting up the top …

A pancake-shaped batfish, a leech with titanic teeth found inside a human's nose and an iron-eating bacterium snagged spots on the Top 10 New Species list, announced Monday (May 23) by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and a committee of taxonomists.

This year's top 10 come from around the world, including Brazil, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar, the North Atlantic Ocean, Oregon, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa and West Africa. [See a Gallery of Top 10 New Species]

The top 10, in no specific order, include:

  • T.-rex leech: The Tyrannobdella rex leech, which sports gigantic teeth, was found in the nostril of a 9-year-old girl by Peruvian physician Renzo Arauco-Brown.
  • Titanic bacterium: Found at the bottom of the ocean, at the site of the RMS Titanic shipwreck, this iron-eating bacterium named Halomonas titanicae. The bacterium sticks to steel surfaces, creating knob-like mounds of corrosion products, called "rusticles."
  • Pancake batfish: The odd fish seems to hop on its thick, arm-like fins as it moves awkwardly in the water, resembling a walking bat. It was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Glowing fungus: Lighting up the top 10 is a luminescent fungus collected in São Paulo, Brazil, which have gel-coated stems that emit a bright, yellowish-green light constantly.
  • Jumping cockroaches: As if cockroaches weren't creepy enough on the ground, one discovered last year has legs that are highly modified for jumping, putting its ability on par with grasshoppers. Named Saltoblattella montistabularis, the cockroach was discovered in the Mountain National Park in South Africa.
  • Monitor lizard: At more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length, a fruit-eating monitor lizard discovered in the Philippines is the lengthiest species to make this year's top 10. The blue, black, green and gold lizard, named Varanus bitatawa, weighs in at 22 pounds and spends most of its time in trees.
  • Dead antelope: A new antelope, named Philantomba walteri, was discovered in West Africa, but sadly it was already dead: it was discovered at a bushmeat market.
  • Raspy cricket: Glomeremus orchidophilus made the list for its distinction of being the only pollinator of the rare and endangered orchid Angraecum cadetii in the Mascarene Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.
  • Gilled mushroom: Called Psathyrella aquatica, this gilled mushroom was found in the northwestern United States submerged in the clear, cold, flowing waters of the upper Rogue River in Oregon.
  • Giant orb-weaver: A giant orb-weaving spider discovered in Madagascar makes webs that can span rivers, streams and lakes. Its silk is more than two times stronger than any other known spider silk. [Gallery: Spooky Spiders]

This annual top 10 new species announcement commemorates the anniversary of the birth of Carolus Linnaeus, who initiated the modern system of plant and animal names and classifications. The list is issued annually by ASU's International Institute for Species Exploration to shine attention on biodiversity. Nominations were invited through the ASU website and also generated by institute staff and an international committee of experts.

"We can only realistically aspire to sustainable biodiversity if we first learn what species exist to begin with. Our best guess is that all species discovered since 1758 represent less than 20 percent of the kinds of plants and animals inhabiting planet Earth," Quentin Wheeler, an entomologist who directs the International Institute for Species Exploration, said in a statement.

Mike Picker (University of Cape Town, South Africa)

"A reasonable estimate is that 10 million species remain to be described, named, and classified before the diversity and complexity of the biosphere is understood," he said.

10 Free Ways to Speed Up Your PC

Does it feel like you can make a pot of coffee and clean the kitchen all in the time it takes for your computer system to boot up? Do you find yourself daydreaming of dropping it off the top of your office building while you’re waiting for web pages to load? If it seems like your computer is running slower every day, here are some things to do to get your “old reliable” running in tip-top shape. Of course, budget-savvy Nerd Chicks are always looking for ways to save some dough, so we’ve made sure they are all free.

1. Get Rid of the Nasties

Viruses and spyware don’t always break your computer, but they do always slow it down. They’re more common than you may think, and can hang out in your system, gumming up the works, without you even knowing it. Microsoft Security Essentials is a great, easy, all-in-one solution to keep your computer healthy and running in top form. Download it here.

2. Update Your OS

Windows issues updates all the time. These can patch holes in the software, closing vulnerabilities that viruses and spyware exploit, and generally make Windows run better. If you’re running Windows XP, right click on the My Computer icon on the desktop, select Properties and click on the Automatic Updates tab. Make sure you set them to download and install automatically.

3. Purge “Bloatware"

Still have that Norton Trial software installed from when you bought your machine three years ago? Get rid of it! Every time it pops up a window “reminding” you to buy it, I’m guessing a little voice in your head mutters unpleasant things. It’s also slowing down your system as the antiquated software runs in the background. Search for “Norton Removal Tool” (or “McAfee Removal Tool”) to make sure that you get the software fully uninstalled.

4. Speed Your Startup

MSConfig is a tool built in to most versions of Windows. Even novice computer surfers can use this tool to stop programs from starting automatically every time you boot up. While certain things are necessary for Windows to function, if your system is trying to turn on iTunes, your printer, and Adobe every time it boots up, the poor thing’s got a lot of things to get going before it can launch your Sudoku. Click the "Start" button. If you have a search option, type “msconfig” into the search field. If you don’t have a search option, but have a “Run” button on the startup menu, click that instead. When you do this, a window will appear on screen with the word "Run:" next to a blank text field. Type "msconfig" in the blank text field and press "Enter". Click the "Startup" tab at the top of the menu. Uncheck the boxes next to programs that you don't need during startup – but only programs you recognize! Click the "Apply" button, then select "OK", and restart your computer. I can almost hear your computer sighing in relief from here.

5. Defrag Your Hard Drive

Every time you save a file, or update software, your hard drive stores each new thing in chronological order. This means that when you launch Word, your system has to search all over your hard drive to find all the pieces that have been stored over the months, or years. Defragging simply means that your hard drive will take all the “like” things and put them together, allowing programs to launch and work faster. Windows 7 comes configured to defrag automatically, however Windows XP users will need to start the process manually. From the Start menu, right-click the “My Computer” option. Select “Manage” and choose disk defragmenter under the Storage section. Keep in mind that the process can take several hours, so set it to run at night. Also, remember to disable your system’s hibernate mode & screen saver before starting. When the process is complete, restart your PC.

6. Repair the Registry

Your system’s registry is like your hard drive’s table of contents. If there are incorrect entries, it can take your drive longer to find all the pieces of data it needs to launch and run programs. Glary Utilities is a great free application that you can install to quickly and easily fix registry errors and optimize your system’s performance. Download the free version here.

7. Clear Out the Cookies

Every time you visit a website, it stores little pieces of itself, or programs, on your system. The idea is that the next time you visit the site it will load that content faster. The problem is that it’s rare that we return to the same sites and see the same things over and over again. Instead, the process of digging through several MBs of temporary internet files will lead all websites to load more slowly. Clear out your cache with CCleaner , a top rated free software program for cleaning out temporary files and making your system run at its best. One tip: use the cookies tab to select cookies you want to keep from sites you visit often and/or want to continue to login to automatically (like your email, or your bank).

8. Clean it, No Really!

Your computer has a fan in it that draws in air to cool the CPU and components. If this fan or vent becomes clogged with dust, pet hair, or other nasties, your system can overheat, causing it to run more sluggishly and eventually break. Grab a can of air and take your PC outside for a field trip. Don’t just blow into the intake vent: open the case, don’t blow air too closely at the components, and blow dust away from the case.

Related: Best Online Movie and TV Sites

9. Ditch Internet Explorer

There are many alternative browsers you can use to access the Internet. Most techies agree that Google’s Chrome is the fastest option that doesn’t compromise compatibility.

10. If all else fails…

A surefire way to ensure that your system is running as close to good-as-new as you can hope to get is to back up your data, format your hard drive, and reinstall Windows. Keep in mind that you will need to reinstall all of your software, including office. Don’t forget to install your anti-virus and anti-spyware before surfing the net!

Getting on a regular maintenance schedule will save you, and your trusty computer, much pain and suffering. Especially if these tips keep you from drop kicking your PC off the roof! If you’re struggling with any of these steps, or want more info, check out my website,

Monday, May 23, 2011

Earning Potential Rises for Class of 2011

See which degrees are leading to a boost in income potential for this year's graduating class.

By Chris Kyle

In what can only be good news for the economy, the average starting salary offer for the class of 2011 is on the rise for the first time in three years.

According to a recent survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the average job offer to a bachelor's degree graduate this year is $50,034, up 3.5 percent over last year.

Yahoo! School FinderHot fields enjoying a boost in starting offers include accounting, finance, business, and computer science.

Keep reading to learn about these degrees and see why they are helping students find work while sparking an economic turnaround:

Hot Degree #1 - Accounting
Average Starting Offer: $49,022*

The recent recession was a financial wake-up call for everyone from Wall Street to Main Street. As a result, accountants are in demand like never before to help balance budgets.

Curriculum: By earning your degree in accounting, you'll learn about generally accepted accounting principles and study courses like statistics, tax planning, auditing, corporate valuation, and accounting for mergers & acquisitions.

Potential Career Paths: Some students choose accounting to prepare for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, but an accounting degree can lead to a surprisingly wide range of careers.

According to North Carolina State University's accounting department website, your business card could eventually read accountant, financial analyst, real estate assessor, or even forensic actuary.

Hot Degree #2 - Finance
Average Starting Offer: $50,535

While the study of accounting deals more specifically with the preparation and analysis of financial statements, finance majors focus more intently on the markets and learn about financial portfolios and investments, as well as the money that's needed to start and keep a company afloat. These are skills that corporations need right now.

Curriculum: While working your way toward a degree in finance, you're likely to study courses like macroeconomics, international banking, fixed income securities, investment management, and financial derivatives.

Potential Career Paths: Financial analyst is certainly one occupation that links up well with a finance degree. There are plenty of careers that require financially savvy professionals, including buying, selling and managing commercial real estate, as well as software sales for the financial services industry.

Many finance graduates find positions within the finance departments of firms; with banks, mutual funds, and other kinds of financial institutions; in government; or in a charitable organization, according to the Princeton Review's website.

Hot Degree #3 - Business
Average Starting Offer: $48,089

Today's global economy is a key reason why a business degree is a popular choice for students worldwide. To use just a couple examples, you might study different theories on how to build and operate a business, and learn how to market a whole host of products - as well as how to market yourself.

Curriculum: While getting your business degree, you're likely to build a strong foundation of skills in areas like accounting, communications, economics, finance, leadership, management, and marketing.

Potential Career Paths: Students may choose to enter marketing, sales, operations, or finance. Other possibilities include human resources (HR) and public relations (PR).

According to Washington State University's online business degree program, possible careers include:

  • Global logistics and transportation
  • Import-export positions
  • Multinational product management, advertising, and sales
  • Travel and tourism
  • International consulting
  • Electronic commerce

Hot Degree #4 - Computer Science
Average Starting Offer: $61,783

Computer science plays a huge role in every industry imaginable, from medicine and entertainment to finance and disaster recovery. Though its graduates sometimes work behind-the-scenes, they're often compensated well for their efforts, and companies like Google have changed the way people think about these experts. Computer geeks, as they are often affectionately called, are most definitely chic!

Curriculum: While earning your computer science degree, you'll likely study programming and the principles of computing, data structures and algorithms, information technology (IT), cloud computing, and network systems design.

Potential Career Paths: Common careers for computer science graduates include database and systems analysts, software engineers, and computer programmers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A computer-related degree is often paired with high starting salary offers, according to a 2010 article in "Network World", an IT-related publication and website. "Here's a tip for incoming and current college students: If you want to have a high-paying job on graduation day, study computer science," said the article.

*All salary information comes from the National Association of Colleges and Employers' Winter 2011 Salary Survey.

Schwarzenegger revamps his image once again

FILE - In this April 4, 2011 file photo, actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, poses after receiving the insignia of Chevalier in the Order of the Legion of Honor during the MIPTV (International Television Programme Market) in Cannes, southern France. Schwarzenegger delayed his Hollywood comeback Thursday, May 19, 2011 as he braced for what could be a costly divorce prompted by revelations that he had an affair and child with a housekeeper who worked for his family for 20 years. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)

LOS ANGELES - For 35 years, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been carefully crafting his public image, from Austrian bodybuilder and international action star to family man and Republican politician.

Now, with his split from Maria Shriver and revelations that he fathered a child with a member of his housekeeping staff, where does Schwarzenegger go from here? Can he have a future either in politics or film, and how does he once again reshape his image, especially in the eyes of female fans?

"His biggest problem as an action star has nothing to do with being an adulterer. It has to do with being 63 years old and physically wrecked — unless they're going to make `Terminator 6: The Golden Years,'" said David Leibowitz, a Phoenix-based public relations and crisis communications consultant. "The love child is almost the least of his worries."

For decades, though, Schwarzenegger was the safest of box-office bets, with his bulging, muscular physique and his quippy, punny one-liners. The "Terminator" movies alone have made more than $1 billion worldwide — most of that outside the United States.

"For me, he has never been a serious action star, but rather a sort of parody of himself," said Ali Arikan, chief film critic for the Turkish website and Roger Ebert contributor. "He had that wink in his eye even in earlier, more somber stuff like `Conan the Barbarian.' In fact, when he tried to be more serious, as with 1999's turgid `End of Days,' it was risible: nothing more hilarious than seeing Arnie `act!' So, he's basically been this goofy clown, shrewd and with great intelligence about his career, but a clown nonetheless."

Shrewd indeed. Around the movie work, this "clown" began adding some serious yet varied cred to the script, including roles as President Ronald Reagan's fitness guru, a campaigner for George W. Bush, and a founding backer with Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore in the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain.

Then, as Schwarzenegger's movie glory days began waning, he revamped his image again and became the improbable governor of California in a 2003 recall election.

Having a Kennedy heiress by his side certainly didn't hurt, despite the couple's disparate political leanings and even through claims that Schwarzenegger had groped other women. As former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown once put it, "Maria has been much more of a benefit to Arnold than Arnold has been to Maria."

Schwarzenegger often said being governor was the best job in the world, one he would have enjoyed holding longer had there not been term limits.

While in office, his highly choreographed, stage-managed appearances often seemed more like Hollywood productions than political forums. With Gov. Schwarzenegger, opportunities for image enhancement were seldom missed.

There was even talk about repealing the citizenship law to allow Schwarzenegger to run for president.

But his standing with voters was rocky throughout his governorship as the political neophyte sought to figure out where he stood on a host of divisive issues. Schwarzenegger's approval ratings plummeted during the 2005 special election in which he placed several conservative measures on the ballot, all of which voters resoundingly rejected. With Shriver's help, he apologized and reinvented himself once more as a political moderate, winning easy re-election in 2006.

During his second term, Schwarzenegger made bi-partisan friendships in the state Legislature and after signing legislation to restrict California's greenhouse gas emissions, he became a leader in the green energy cause.

But he was elected on a promise to fix California's chronic budget woes, and despite his best efforts, he soon gave in to the gimmickry and maneuvering that have been hallmarks of budget deal-making in Sacramento. He was seen as largely failing to accomplish his mandate, and his approval rating fell to 25 percent as he left office in 2010.

Lately, he's been jet-setting with the likes of "Terminator" director James Cameron and announcing he's ready to re-launch his acting career. But following his separation from Shriver after 25 years of marriage and the damaging baby revelations, he says he's putting those plans on hold.

As the owner of the Carolina Cinemas chain of movie theaters, Bill Banowsky sees Schwarzenegger making a comeback eventually — but only as an action star.

"I'd feel great about it if he's playing a `Terminator' role, if he's playing a role in a big action movie. I think he's going to do very well," said Banowsky, who also founded the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. "If he comes out with a romantic comedy as a way to get back in, that would be really challenging for him."

And Arikan of the Turkish website suspects Schwarzenegger still has a future as a global star, despite his age.

"The international markets thrive on stars and cling onto them. Just look at the international numbers of `The Tourist' versus the U.S. ones," he said. "He could churn out action films every few years and expect the equivalent numbers that he got during the latter part of his career, like `The 6th Day' or `Eraser.' But he could never again soar the heights he once did with `T2' or `True Lies,' either nationally or internationally."

For now, though, it's wise for Schwarzenegger to apologize, lay low and focus on his family, which includes his four children with Shriver, said Melanie Ofenloch, a Dallas-based executive vice president at the global public relations firm Weber Shandwick. But it may not be enough. Part of why this transgression seems so appalling to women may be because Shriver herself has devoted so much of her life to championing women's issues: "I think they're going to have that mentality of: `How dare he?'"

"He's going to need to continue to show remorse. He's going to have to be honest about what's going on. If there's more to be found, then that's going to make it even more difficult," Ofenloch said. "But we are a society that's willing to give people a second chance."

Yet reaching out to women's groups is exactly the wrong thing to do, said Leibowitz, the Phoenix PR consultant.

"We live in a cynical age. People have gotten used to the idea that the celebrity who gets busted for DUI makes a huge contribution to Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the celebrity caught dog fighting does community service with the Humane Society," he said.

"If you take care of the personal first, the professional will follow," Leibowitz added. "If Arnold Schwarzenegger is able to mend his relationship with Maria Shriver and with his children, we'll see that in public. Women, y'all are really smart, you'll figure it out. It's a gut instinct thing."

Card Fraud: 7 Ways to Counter New Skimming Scams

A one-time victim of identity theft, I'm all too familiar with the residual headaches of losing control of your critical personal information. So I pay particular attention anytime a new scam surfaces -- like the recent debit-card skimming scheme at Michael's Stores, a national chain of specialty shops.

OK. Skimming isn't actually new. It's been around for a few years. But until now it's mostly been practiced at gas stations and remote ATMs. Today, it's everywhere and growing.

Skimming has become the identity theft of choice for many crooks. You have a one-in-five chance of being a victim; losses will total about $1 billion this year. Other forms of identity theft include dumpster diving, phishing and pretexting. But skimming generates far quicker and richer rewards for perps, who essentially gain immediate access to cardholder bank accounts.

At Michael's Stores, thieves managed to hack the debit-processing equipment at 80 locations in 20 states. They were able to instantly duplicate customers' cards and begin making cash withdrawals from the associated bank accounts, $500 at a time.

[Click here to check current credit card offers, including rates and terms.]

How did they do it? The crooks tampered with debit-card processing equipment at the point of sale, inserting a tiny device into the store equipment that enabled them to read the magical magnetic strip on the debit card as it was swiped. Evidently, a pinhole camera then recorded customers as they entered their PIN.

This is a frightfully difficult crime to defend against. Technology has advanced to where miniscule cameras and card reading devices are virtually undetectable. Some devices allow criminals to download the information stored on skimming devices remotely without even having to retrieve the device. You might consider just using a credit card, which has greater protections.

Young or old, if you are going to use a debit card you need to take precautions. Here's how:

1. Cover your PIN. Your bankcard won't work without the PIN. Thieves usually obtain the PIN with a small camera stationed near the card processor. So keep an eye out for anything that seems out of place. It might be a camera. In any event, shield the keypad with your body or free hand when entering your PIN.

2. Be selective with your ATM. Again, look for anything out of place. Any wires exposed? Tape evident? Hardware loose? If so, find another ATM. Use an ATM inside a bank whenever possible. Stay away from ATMs in remote locations or that appear seldom used. These are easy to tamper with and might even be dummy cash machines.

3. Leave some wiggle room. When you insert your card, wiggle it while it's in the slot. If something seems loose, there might be theft device attached to the swipe hardware. Wiggling the card might jar the theft device from its hiding place.

4. Monitor your accounts. One of the best protections against continued use of your stolen information is to check bank statements regularly. With a debit card, you may be responsible for the first $50 and you must report theft within two business days of discovery and no later than 60 days after the theft for protection. Credit cards have more protections and might be a better choice if you have any reservations about an ATM or processing machine.

5. Look for security cameras. ATMs and gas pumps that are under video surveillance and have cameras aimed directly at the card readers are less likely to be fitted with card-skimming equipment.

6. Keep an eye on your card. When you give your card to a waiter or clerk, be skeptical of any request to swipe it through multiple devices or if they must leave your sight.

7. Be careful at the gas station. Gas stations are among the most prone to skimming. Use a credit card or choose the credit option on your bankcard.

Rebooted 'Pirates' sets overseas box office record

Spanish actress Penelope Cruz poses during a photocall on the red carpet for the German premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, in southern Germany, on Monday, May 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

NEW YORK - The reengineered "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel "On Stranger Tides" found its smoothest sailing overseas, where it took in a record $256.3 million at the international box office, according to studio estimates Sunday.

That surpasses the previous record foreign opening of the sixth "Harry Potter" film, 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which earned $236 million internationally.

Walt Disney co. said "On Stranger Tides," the fourth "Pirates" installment, earned $90.1 million domestically. Its combined worldwide total is $346.4 million, the fourth largest global opening ever.

The new 3-D film jettisons co-stars Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, but brings back Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow. "Chicago" director Rob Marshall took the helm from Gore Verbinski, who directed the trilogy. Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane introduce new characters.

It was a risky reboot considering the popularity of the previous "Pirates" films. The last, 2007's "At World's End," opened with $114.7 million.

But "At World's End" was also badly reviewed and disappointing to much of its audience. For Disney, which has expansive merchandising and theme park tie-ins to "Pirates of the Caribbean," it's a crucial franchise. The first three movies earned a combined $2.7 billion worldwide.

"The whole play of this particular movie was based on a worldwide release because of our feeling of how strong the international marketplace would be," said Chuck Viane, head of distribution at Disney. "Johnny is not just a domestic star. Johnny is an international star."

Viane said the result vindicated the franchise's new look, that audiences "loved the rebooted attitude." Viane didn't comment on whether this meant a subsequent fifth film, but that seems extremely likely. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer already has a script in the works.

"On Stranger Tides" was the only new film in wide-release on the weekend. In its second week of release, the acclaimed comedy "Bridesmaids," starring Kristen Wiig, was second at the box office with $21 million. That was an impressively small decrease of just 20 percent from the Universal release's opening weekend of $26.2 million.

The slight decrease was even less than popular comedies like "The Hangover" and "Wedding Crashers," which had similarly sustained business due to strong word-of-mouth.

Last week's top film at the box office, the comic book adaptation "Thor," from Paramount, slid to third place in its third week of release. It earned $15.5 million, bringing its cumulative total to $145.4 million.

Making its limited-release debut was Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," which has received some of the best reviews for Allen in years. The Sony Pictures Classics release opened in just six theaters, but drew an exceptional per-screen average of more than $96,000.

Though "On Stranger Tides" had the best North America opening of the year, the international revenue was the larger story. The film traded on its foreign appeal by casting international stars like Cruz and setting itself in bright tropical locales.

"This proves the importance of the global marketplace," said Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for

The film performed especially strong in Russia, China and India, accounting for $52.6 million. It set an all-time record in Russia, taking in $28.6 million.

The film benefited from higher ticket prices for 3-D showings, but perhaps more importantly from IMAX screenings. "On Stranger Tides" set a global record for IMAX with $16.7 million worldwide.

Propelled largely by the "Pirates" installment and the continuing success of "Bridesmaids," it was the second "up" weekend in a row as compared with box office figures from the same weekend last year. Next weekend, the three-day Memorial Day weekend, also appears bright, with debuts from "The Hangover Part II" from Warner Bros. and "Kung Fu Panda 2" from Paramount.

Combined with the second weekend of "On Stranger Tides," Dergarabedian expects it to be one of the biggest moviegoing Memorial Day weekends ever.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Final figures will be released Monday.

1. "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," $90.1 million.

2. "Bridesmaids," $21 million.

3. "Thor," $15.5 million.

4. "Fast Five," $10.6 million.

5. "Rio," $4.7 million.

6. "Priest," $4.6 million.

7. "Jumping the Broom," $3.7 million.

8. "Something Borrowed," $3.4 million.

9. "Water For Elephants," $2.2 million.

10. "Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family," $990,000.

Suns president Rick Welts tells The New York Times he’s gay

We've learned in recent weeks that the NBA still has a complicated relationship with anything other than the most heteronormative forms of sexuality. Kobe Bryant's unfortunate slur and his subsequent non-apology were not the league's best moments, and slang use of "pause" is a regularity on players' Twitter accounts.

Still, there are some signs that the NBA may be becoming more open-minded about this issue. Bryant recorded a nice PSA that was played at a few Lakers home games, and the Phoenix Suns' Grant Hill and Jared Dudley starred in a similar-themed spot that aired during Game 1 between the Bulls and Heat.

On Sunday, the NBA may have witnessed a watershed moment in its relationship with the LGBT community. In a piece by Dan Barry of The New York Times, Suns president Rick Welts told the world he's gay:

In these meetings and in interviews with The New York Times, Mr. Welts explained that he wants to pierce the silence that envelops the subject of homosexuality in men's team sports. He wants to be a mentor to gay people who harbor doubts about a sports career, whether on the court or in the front office. Most of all, he wants to feel whole, authentic.

"This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits," said Mr. Welts, who stands now as a true rarity, a man prominently employed in professional men's team sports, willing to declare his homosexuality. "Nobody's comfortable in engaging in a conversation."

Dr. Richard Lapchick, the founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, and the son of the basketball legend Joe Lapchick, agreed. "The fact that there's no other man who has done this before speaks directly to how hard it must be for Rick to do this now," he said.

The article is lengthy and absolutely worth reading in full. Barry notes how Welts came out to several high-profile friends including David Stern, Bill Russell and Steve Nash(notes). He also tells how Welts went from a Seattle ballboy as a teenager in the '70s to the No. 3 employee in the entire NBA by the late-'90s. He worked as public relations director for the Sonics during their championship season of 1979, created All-Star Weekend, and played a major role into turning the NBA into a global force. Despite that success, he was unable to discuss his personal life, including the death of his long-time partner -- not just in public, but with friends and colleagues, as well.

It's a fascinating story that helps illuminate how far behind most of the country the NBA is with regards to sexuality. Welts is 58 and has accomplished more than all except a handful of executives in league history, but he only now felt comfortable enough to make the most basic aspect of his personal life public. Some of that reluctance is probably owed to his own personality. On the other hand, his unwillingness to do so for so long likely has something to do with the culture of machismo that pervades the NBA. Still, that he chose to make this decision at all may help break down barriers around the league.

However, the boardroom isn't the locker room, and progress in one doesn't always lead to broadened horizons in another. David Stern accepting a gay friend does not mean that a group of 15 players would be totally cool with one openly gay teammate. That time will come, but it's not necessarily right around the corner.

Nevertheless, instances of improved social equality should be celebrated no matter how minor the advances may be. Welts has made history, and we should applaud him for it.

World's Best Ruins

By Christine Sarkis

Ruins reach across centuries to fire the imagination and fuel travel plans. The very best make you feel young, small, and utterly amazed by the architectural chops of the ancients. Among the many amazing ruins that still exist today, a few stand out as the trip of a lifetime.

No matter which ruins you visit, a few rules hold true: Time your trip for the less crowded times of day, often early or late. Give yourself plenty of time, as some ruins require days of exploration. Hire a knowledgeable guide, since the history is rich but the signage is often cursory. And get beyond the most popular parts of the ruin; you'll need a bit of quiet space to appreciate this kind of ancient majesty.

Machu Picchu, Peru

The journey to Machu Picchu is epic even with relatively newfangled transportation like trains. But each year, about 25,000 people forgo the more direct routes and walk for days along the 27-mile Inca Trail to reach the ruin. Since its rediscovery a century ago, this treasure of the Inca set high in a cloud forest of the Peruvian Andes has captured imaginations worldwide. The massive stone blocks tell the story of both a sprawling agricultural zone with terracing and ancient food storehouses and an urban zone replete with temples, squares, tombs, and living quarters. If you're considering a trek to Machu Picchu, plan ahead: You can only make the hike with a licensed company, and spots book up quickly, especially in high season.

Acropolis, Greece

Waiting for the traffic to speed past at a crowded intersection in Athens, you're likely to forget that history keeps constant watch over the city. Glance up, however, and you'll catch the view Athenians and visitors alike have been admiring for the last 2,500 years. Time has battered the once-pristine temples and gates that crown the hill of the Acropolis, leaving stone ruins that retain a familiar splendor even after thousands of years of wear and destruction. The elegant proportions of the fifth-century B.C. Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike—both dedicated to the city's patron deity—are a reminder of how much we still rely on ancient Greece for our concepts of beauty.

Mesa Verde, United States

Great ruins aren't always an ocean away: Some of the best preserved Native American cliff dwellings in North America reside in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Home to the Ancestral Puebloans—whose descendants became 20 different Southwestern tribes, including the Hopi and Zuni—Mesa Verde traces 700 years of history across 4,000 archeological sites. Visit mesa-top pueblos and the dwellings built beneath massive overhanging cliffs. Ascend steep trails and ladders, or crawl through tunnels to explore ancient architecture such as the 150-room Cliff Palace or the hard-to-reach Balcony House. The park's hours vary by season, and not all sites are open year-round.

Angkor, Cambodia

War or natural disaster might have weakened the Khmer Empire's ancient capital, but ultimately, it was the jungle that conquered this ninth- to fifteenth-century urban center. Today, the densely forested 150-square-mile Angkor Archaeological Park protects part of a vast cluster of ancient capitals, many of which remain buried. The park's most famous temple, Angkor Wat, is the world's largest religious building. But the park's dozens of other ruins, including Bayon temple with its wall of 11,000 carved figures, offer quieter glimpses into the art and architecture of this culturally rich 600-year period.

Great Pyramids And Memphis, Egypt

Political unrest or no, a roundup of the world's best ruins can't exclude Egypt. The last existing ancient wonder of the world, the Great Pyramid of Giza stands as a lone window into the far past. With more than 4,000 years to ponder the question, experts still can't agree on how the builders placed more than 2 million stone blocks so perfectly. The rest of the Giza Necropolis holds more wonders: two more Great Pyramids, built during 80 years by 20,000 to 30,000 workers, plus the Great Sphinx, cemeteries, and the ruins of a village. The pyramids are part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage site that includes Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. A trip can even include some up-close-and-personal time: Visitors can explore the interiors of some of the pyramids. And the recent drop in tourism offers intrepid travelers the rare chance to experience the pyramids without the usual crowds.

Tikal, Guatemala

Stay overnight in the national park for the ultimate experience at Tikal, an ancient Maya city in northern Guatemala that was home to 90,000 people before being abandoned in the tenth century. Early the next morning, before the park opens to the general public, join a small group making the trek through a jungle awash in the pre-dawn symphony of birds and insects. Climb to the top of Temple IV, the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent, to witness a sunrise that reveals ancient temples and pyramids rising from the verdant forest blanket. You've still got hours to explore this vast complex of pyramids, temples, and plazas before the big crowds roll in. Along the way, catch glimpses of brown coatis, toucans, howler monkeys, and some of the hundreds of other species to call Tikal home.

Petra, Jordan

Hailed as a "rose-red city half as old as time" in a 19th-century poem, the ancient city of Petra was half built and half carved into red sandstone cliffs. Nabataean Arabs established the city in the sixth century B.C., and for hundreds of years it thrived as a trade center for frankincense, myrrh, and spices. Now, as then, enter the ruins of the city through a narrow, half-mile-long gorge squeezed between cliffs nearly 300 feet high. Inside, explore architecturally elaborate tombs and temples, sacrificial altars, and even a Roman-style amphitheater. Most people explore on foot, but visitors can also ride camels and donkeys. The sun lights up the red cliffs of Petra most dramatically in mid-morning and late afternoon, so be sure to time your visit accordingly.

Colosseum, Italy

Digitally reimagined in Hollywood blockbusters such as Gladiator, the camera really shaves millennia off Rome's Colosseum. But the 2,000-year-old ruins are so evocative up close that special effects seem superfluous. With a bloody history of fights to the death between gladiators, slaves, prisoners, and wild animals, the Colosseum held 50,000 spectators or more in its heyday. Later, Romans used the abandoned arena as a quarry: Stones from the Colosseum are part of the cathedrals of St. Peter and St. John Lateran. Last summer, entirely new sections of the ruin—including the basement— were opened for tours.

Great Wall Of China, China

Like a dragon, the Great Wall of China slithers its way across the landscape for about 4,500 miles, and, like a dragon, the wall protects something treasured. Constructed to shelter China's people and culture from the outside world, the "Long Wall of 10 Thousand Li" was built during 2,000 years by many imperial dynasties. While some parts of the wall are in ruins or have disappeared entirely, other sections have been restored or preserved. The most popular section today is the Badaling Great Wall, close to Beijing. Slightly farther from the capital city and offering a more rugged (and less crowded) experience is the Great Wall at Mutianyu. In Qinhuangdao City, the Laolongtou Great Wall actually stretches into the sea, and is said to resemble a dragon drinking water.

Palmyra, Syria

Twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, the Bride of the Desert blushes, even 18 centuries after her birth. Palmyra, also known as Tadmor, is in the desert northeast of Damascus, Syria, and was once a wealthy caravan oasis along the Silk Road, linking Persia, India, and China with the Roman Empire. At a crossroads of cultures, the ruins of grand colonnaded streets, temples, funerary towers, and aqueducts demonstrate a mingling of influences that made this an awfully cosmopolitan place for the second century. Palmyra was also home to the warrior queen and conqueror Zenobia, and tour guides tell exciting tales that give this seemingly isolated place a starring role in world history.

Rihanna Receives Online Backlash After Following Chris Brown On Twitter

Story photo: Rihanna Receives Online Backlash After Following Chris Brown On Twitter
Rihanna/Chris BrownComposed by
Access Hollywood

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Rihanna added ex-boyfriend Chris Brown to the list of people she follows on Twitter on Friday, and shortly thereafter, Brown added Rihanna to his list in return - a move that had the "S&M" singer's fans instantly concerned.

"LOUD era is over... @chrisbrown is in the game again... Welcome back RATED R era ):," Rihanna fan iStan4Rihanna_ Tweeted on Friday.

The 23-year-old Barbados-born beauty had been prohibited from having contact with her R&B star ex until recently, when a judge lifted the restraining order against Brown.

However, Riri was quick to fight back against her fans' online hints that the estranged pair may reunite.

"Its [expletive] twitter, not the alter!" she Tweeted on Saturday. "Calm down."

"Ive wanted @rihanna to tweet me all my life, shes my idol, and she tweetd me somethng bad ):" iStan4Rihanna Tweeted in response.

After a flurry of messages defending the concerned Twitter user, Rihanna was quick to apologize to the disappointed fan, as well as to her legions of followers whom she fondly refers to as her "Navy."

"babygirl I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt or offend u!... Just needed to make it clear to the Navy! I still Stan for u xoxo," she Tweeted, using a portion of the Twitter user's name -- "Stan" -- in place of "stand."

As previously reported on, Rihanna recently revealed that she felt she didn't seek enough help from a therapist after finding herself the victim of domestic violence in 2009 at the hands of then-boyfriend Brown.

"I don't think I saw her enough," she told Rolling Stone magazine's April 14 issue, regarding the therapist she said she visited just one time following the incident. "I was like, 'You can't help me. I have to understand myself first.' A lot of it was talking out my story in my head, pretending it was somebody else. I started to judge it for what it really was, instead of being biased by my heart."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

End of an era as Vegas casino closes

End of an era as Vegas casino closes
AFP/Getty Images/File – A general view of the porte cochere at the Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, on May 11.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (AFP) – Las Vegas marks the end of an era this week as one of the US gambling mecca's last original "Rat Pack" casino-hotels, the Sahara, finally closes its doors.

Opened in 1952, the Sahara hosted everyone from Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis to Frank Sinatra and the Beatles in the 1950s and 60s, and their photos still decorate the walls above the reception.

But in recent decades Vegas saw an explosion of mega-sized casino resorts which left the "small" Sahara struggling to fill its 1,700 rooms at the end of the famous Strip.

The death knell was sounded in March, when its owners since 2007, SBE Entertainment, announced that the casino-hotel complex with its more than 1,050 staff was no longer a viable business.

"In a way it was a surprise, but in a way it wasn't," Michael McLendon, a supervisor in the casino's poker room -- already deserted ahead of Monday's final day -- told AFP.

"The way things were going, with the economy and all, we felt something was happening. We just didn't know what it was," he said. "I'm retiring. I'm done. There are not too many people out there looking for a 66 year-old anyway."

And with hard times hitting Vegas even harder than most US cities, the prospect of finding other jobs is not good.

"Some dealers here, just like porters, bartenders, cocktail waitresses, they found other jobs. But the majority didn't, because it's not a good time, now in Las Vegas, because of the economy," said McLendon.

Sheryl Reed, a waitress in the Nascar Cafe for 11 years, hasn't found anything. "It sucks ..You have to be in your 20s to work in Vegas, now. I left applications, they say they'll call you, but they never call," she said.

Dennis Carade, a front desk clerk for 39 years, has also chosen to retire. "I was offered a job in the Aria because a friend of mine works there," he said, referring to another Vegas casino.

"But you know, I've been in this business for 50 years, time's up," he said, recounting anecdotes about Elvis and Clint Eastwood -- who made "The Gauntlet" here in 1977.

He also doesn't mince his words about the Sahara's latest owners.

"These are the worst we've ever had. They came in here from California and they are very arrogant. It took them about three and half years to take this hotel right down to the ground," he said.

"These people should be ashamed to themselves," he added.

The management of SBE Entertainment declined to make any comment.

Far from its "Rat Pack" glory days, the Sahara has been known in recent years for its dollar-a-go games and the 6-pound, 2 foot (2.7 kilo, 60 cm) burrito available in the Nascar Cafe, dubbed "The Bomb."

But the hotel, with its Moroccan-style decor, its large Hollywood-style swimming pool and its ghosts -- Sol Arenas, a cleaner for 20 years, says she saw a "frightening and diabolical presence" in the Tangiers tower -- retained an outmoded charm which many will miss.

In the 1950s the "Rat Pack," a group of actors led by Sinatra but also including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., appeared in numerous Vegas shows and several films, including the original "Ocean's Eleven."

For French retirees and Strip habitues Brigitte and Daniel Quentin, who have already seen the demise of the Dunes, Stardust, New Frontier and Sands, the end of the Sahara is another body blow.

"We've stayed here several times and it is distressing," said Brigitte. "We knew our machines and the staff. It was a hotel with a human dimension, it had warmth."

It is a view shared by Tracy Reed, a Californian who has visited the Sahara four or five times a year for 15 years.

"It was like home. The other hotels are way too big. There's no contact, you can't meet people, get to know them. And here you got to know the employees, they got to know you by name, it's just very homey," she said.

In his little tattoo parlour, opposite the reception, Eric Ayala also voiced the hotel staff's emotional attachment to the hotel.

"This morning, we just got an employee who wanted a tattoo of the coin of the casino on his arm. He was sad, you know, he's been working here all his life".

How to Criticize Your Boss -- Nicely

Q: How can you tell your senior manager that they use a catch phrase too much in conversation? Phrases like "well obviously," "you know," and, my personal favorite, "to be honest" can cause them to disengage with their audience and diminish their effectiveness as speakers.

San Francisco, California

A: Your concerns are well justified, but you'll want to put a lot of thought into how you approach your manager on this topic. Just as important as what you say to him or her is how you say it. Depending on the relationship you have with your boss as well as the tone you use, it could work to bring you closer or end up causing a rift, say experts.

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"Any time you are offering unsolicited advice, you run the risk of alienating versus helping," explains Jodie Charlop, founder of Atlanta-based career coaching firm Potential Matters. "It adds to the complexity if there is a power differential."

Timing also matters, says Tracey Trottenberg, a Los Angeles-based leadership trainer, coach, and speaker. "Catch them in a moment when they're more receptive and not racing around or short on time," she recommends. Still, the conversation doesn't have to be long or drawn out, she says. "It can be delivered simply and to the point."

In addition to your tone and timing, you'll also want to consider your motivation. "If you are coming from a place of truly wanting to help [your] manager, then you'll have a higher probability of finding the right words and approach," says Ms. Charlop. But if you're bringing this up with your manager because the habit is driving you nuts, don't let your emotions push you to be too blunt.

[More from How to Deal With a Bully of a Boss]

It is quite common for people to feel like they need to correct or "fix" others, she says. Often, people justify their actions with the idea that they are helping the person in question. "But the fact is we are judging by our own personal standards," says Ms. Charlop.

When you're ready to bring it up, find a safe setting and ask permission to talk about something that you've observed in your informal conversations. "Share how it is impacting you," says Ms. Charlop. For example, you could say something along the lines of: "Bob, I value your expertise. I've observed in our conversations that you use the catch phrase 'you know' many times in our conversation -- so much, I find it hinders my ability to really hear you." Then, follow it up with a positive. "It's important to me that we have great communication."

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Rather than singling out your manager, try to make him or her a part of a larger class or group, suggests crisis management expert Davia Temin.

Years ago, when Ms. Temin worked as a marketing director for a major investment bank, she was asked by the bank's president to help fix some of the senior managers' poor table manners. Rather than approach the managers directly, Ms. Temin says she hired two men to coach them as a group on communication skills. By Ms. Temin's design, the first meeting was held over breakfast in the corporate dining room and the bankers were handed copies of "Tiffany's Table Manners for Teenagers." Then, the consultants talked about the importance of table manners, she recalls. "I orchestrated it all, and the message got through."

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Another approach is to put the onus on you, says Ms. Trottenberg. She suggests saying something along the lines of: "I've been learning about communication and that the fillers we use can make us less effective when we speak. I'm working on eliminating key phrases like 'you know' and a few others, and it might be something you want to do, too. I realize more and more that when someone says 'to be honest,' it can sound like they weren't telling the truth before, so that's definitely one to eliminate."

You could then follow it up by asking your boss his or her thoughts on the subject. "That's clean communication that opens up a discussion for more specific feedback and won't put your manager on the defensive," says Ms. Trottenberg.

Write to Elizabeth Garone at

Live the High Life in a Converted Airplane

Pat-downs from the Transportation Security Agency, seat auctions and fees spiraling out of control have made commercial air travel a real drag. In the 1930s and 1940s, boarding a passenger plane and flying to a faraway place was thrilling and glamorous and luxurious.

Unfortunately, but for the lucky few who can afford the awesome perks of business class, the glory days of commercial airline passenger comfort are long gone.

Thankfully, the romance and excitement of the early days of commercial flying lives on via a few ingenious entrepreneurs and architects around the world who dug deep into the sexy history of air travel and created amazing homes and hotels from decommissioned and/or deconstructed commercial aircraft.

Let's check out the high life in several converted airline properties. Prepare for liftoff.

Hotel Costa Verde

The Hotel Costa Verde overlooks the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica.
Photo: Hotel Costa Verde

High on a coastal rainforest bluff that overlooks the sparkling Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica, the Hotel Costa Verde offers sun-seeking vacationers a variety of accommodations from open-air rooms to private bungalows to the cozy fuselage of a refurbished 1965 Boeing 727.

The quirky and kooky suite, which formerly flew for Avianca Airlines, now cantilevers over the jungle atop a 50-foot pedestal and offers guests all the luxuries of a traditional suite - but with a serious twist. A spiral river-rock staircase leads up to the fuselage suite’s entrance and a pair of covered decks with treetop jungle views and a vista of the ocean through swaying palm trees.

The Hotel Costa Verde sits on a 50-foot pedestal above the Costa Rican jungle.
Photo: Hotel Costa Verde

Custom teak paneling covers the walls and ceiling of the entire interior, from cockpit to tail. The covered decks provide up-close encounters with the rainforest’s diverse flora and fauna and the well-appointed living spaces inside the body of the airplane offer the conveniences of home. A sitting area has a television and the kitchenette has an adjacent dining area. There are two air-conditioned bedrooms including one with two double beds and porthole windows.

Max Power

Max Power Aero sells $200,000 homes that were once working aircraft.
Photo: Max Power Aero

If a few days in a retrofitted fuselage in the Costa Rican jungle isn’t enough to satisfy your urge to shack up in an airplane, there are a number of companies such as Max Power Aero that offer the sale, customization and installation of decommissioned aircraft for re-use as funky private homes.

Prices start at around $200,000 and Max Power Aero offers potential buyers the option to have the fuselage mounted on rotating pedestal that allows the plane to weathervane and point into the wind.

Jumbo Stay Hostel

Entrepreneur Oscar Dios turned a former jumbo jet into a Stockholm, Sweden hostel.
Photo: Lioba Schneider

At the entrance to the Arlanda airport in Stockolm, Sweden, hostel entrepreneur Oscar Diös transformed a former Pan Am 747-200 jumbo jet into a modern and sophisticated hostel conveniently located just a 10 minute walk to the international airport’s check-in terminals.

Although some of the original parts and signage remain, much of the interior of the plane was removed and replaced with 27 individual cabins of varying configurations. There are a total of nine bathrooms on the plane, some of them communal.

Jumbo Stay’s first-class lounge offers pre-packaged meals that are similar to those served on commercial airplanes.
Photo: Lioba Schneider

Along with the first-class lounge located in the upper level cabin and furnished with the aircraft’s original first-class seats, the Jumbo Stay Hostel offers guests (and visitors) an on-board café in the nose cone where pre-packaged meals are served “in-flight” style on small plastic trays by staff wearing vintage air-hostess uniforms.

Serena Williams’ controversial Twitter picture: Was it over the line?

On the day the WTA announced its new "strong is beautiful" campaign, Serena Williams is under unnecessary fire for putting up, and quickly removing, a sexy Twitter avatar.

Williams put up the picture of herself standing in high heels and wearing nothing more than matching undergarments on Thursday afternoon. She took it down hours later, but not before the criticism began.

"Someone must have gotten to her and suggested something about common sense and hypocrisy," wrote Greg Couch of The Sporting News.

He's referring to the recent arrest of a Florida man accused of stalking the tennis star. The 40-year-old man was arrested last week on the grounds of Williams' Palm Beach estate. One month earlier, Williams took out an injunction against the man, who used her Twitter updates to stalk her in various locations, including in the dressing room of a television studio. Couch doesn't say so directly, but he's basically suggesting that Serena putting up a voyeuristic photo of herself in a bra and panties emboldens stalkers.

Couch isn't the only one who was skittish about the picture or instantly thought of the recent arrest.

I see it differently. I think the picture is strong and beautiful, just like those new commercials say. What's Serena supposed to do, let the creepy guys win? Dress like Mary Todd Lincoln for the rest of her life? She can't put on a sexy outfit anymore because of one crazed man? If that's going to be the case, she might as well stop tweeting since her accused stalker used that as a tool in his illegal activities. No more revealing outfits; think of how some people might respond! Hell, she might as well stop playing tennis because that's how the stalker found her in the first place.

There's no higher meaning to this picture and I don't want to assign any. Like everything Serena does, this was a calculated move to get people talking about her. It always works. The intentions behind the picture don't change its merit, though.

Like Erin Andrews before her, Serena is a victim of a crime. She's not an enabler. Let's not treat her as one.

Facebook Busted in Clumsy Smear on Google

Facebook red-faced after PR attack on Google
AFP/File – Facebook hired a public relations firm to pitch negative stories about Google to US news outlets

NEW YORK – Facebook Busted in Clumsy Smear on GoogleThe social network secretly hired a PR firm to plant negative stories about the search giant, The Daily Beast's Dan Lyons reveals—a caper that is blowing up in their face, and escalating their war. Plus, more on the ensuing blame game and the PR hacks who did the job.

For the past few days, a mystery has been unfolding in Silicon Valley. Somebody, it seems, hired Burson-Marsteller, a top public-relations firm, to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers, urging them to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy. Burson even offered to help an influential blogger write a Google-bashing op-ed, which it promised it could place in outlets like The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post.

The plot backfired when the blogger turned down Burson’s offer and posted the emails that Burson had sent him. It got worse when USA Today broke a story accusing Burson of spreading a “whisper campaign” about Google “on behalf of an unnamed client.”

But who was the mysterious unnamed client? While fingers pointed at Apple and Microsoft, The Daily Beast discovered that it's a company nobody suspected—Facebook.

Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson, citing two reasons: first, it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.

Like a Cold War spy case made public, the PR fiasco reveals—and ratchets up—the growing rivalry between Google and Facebook. Google, the search giant, views Facebook as a threat, and has been determined to fight back by launching a social-networking system of its own. So far, however, Google has not had much luck, but Facebook nonetheless felt it necessary to return fire—clandestinely.

Here were two guys from one of the biggest PR agencies in the world, blustering around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops.

At issue in this latest skirmish is a Google tool called Social Circle, which lets people with Gmail accounts see information not only about their friends but also about the friends of their friends, which Google calls “secondary connections.” Burson, in its pitch to journalists, claimed Social Circle was “designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users—in a direct and flagrant violation of [Google's] agreement with the FTC.”

Also from Burson: “The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day—without their permission.”

Chris Soghoian, a blogger Burson offered to help write an op-ed, says Burson was “making a mountain out of molehill,” and that Social Circle isn’t dangerous.

Soghoian asked Burson directly what company was paying the agency to spread this stuff around. Burson wouldn’t say. Miffed, Soghoian published their email exchange online. You can see it here.

The story gained wider attention when USA Today reported that two PR flacks from Burson—former CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman, and John Mercurio, a former political reporter—had been pushing reporters at USA Today and other outlets to write stories and editorials claiming Google was violating people’s privacy with Social Circle.

USA Today looked into it, but decided the claims were exaggerated—at which point, Goldman ran for cover. “After Goldman’s pitch proved largely untrue, he subsequently declined USA Today’s requests for comments,” the paper reported.

The mess, seemingly worthy of a Nixon reelection campaign, is embarrassing for Facebook, which has struggled at times to brand itself as trustworthy. But even more so for Burson-Marsteller, a huge PR firm that has represented lots of blue-chip corporate clients in its 58-year history. Mark Penn, Burson’s CEO, has been a political consultant for Bill Clinton, and is best known as the chief strategist in HIllary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Yet here were two guys from one of the biggest and best-known PR agencies in the world, blustering around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops. Even yesterday, when I asked flat out whether Facebook had been the client behind the campaign, a Burson spokesman refused to confirm it. Then, later, learning that Facebook had come clean, the Burson spokesman wrote back and confirmed it.

As for Facebook, its pious handwringing about user privacy might be a bit of a smokescreen. What really seems to be angering Facebook is that some of the stuff that pops up under “secondary connections” in Google’s Social Circle is content pulled from Facebook.

In other words, just as Google built Google News by taking content created by hundreds of newspapers and repackaging it, so now Google aims to build a social-networking business by using that rich user data that Facebook has gathered.

Facebook claims that Google is violating Facebook’s terms of service when it uses Facebook member data in that way. “We are concerned that Google may be improperly using data they have scraped about Facebook users,” the spokesman says. A Google spokeswoman reached last night said Facebook’s allegation about Google improperly using data was a new one and the company needed time to consider a response.

The clash between Google and Facebook represents one of the biggest battles of the Internet Age. Basically, the companies are vying to see who will grab the lion’s share of online advertising.

Facebook has 600 million members and gathers information on who those people are, who their friends are, and what they like. That data let Facebook sell targeted advertising. It also makes Facebook a huge rival to Google.

Last month, Google CEO and cofounder Larry Page sent out a memo telling everyone at Google that social networking was a top priority for Google—so much so that 25 percent of every Googler’s bonus this year will be based on how well Google does in social.

It’s hard to say whether Google will ever be able to crack Facebook’s grip on social networking. But after this sorry, clumsy episode, Facebook no longer seems so invincible. In fact, it almost seems a little afraid.

Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.

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