Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gov't OKs 1st US offshore wind farm, off Mass.



A whole new way of generating electricity in the U.S. drew a big step closer to reality Wednesday, and it could look like this: 130 windmills, 440 feet tall, rising from the ocean a few miles off Cape Cod.

After more than eight years of lawsuits and government reviews, the Obama administration cleared the way for the nation's first offshore wind farm.

"We are beginning a new direction in our nation's energy future," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared in announcing his approval of the $2 billion Cape Wind project, which would finally allow the U.S. to join the list of major countries that are producing electricity from sea breezes.

The project has faced intense opposition from two Indian tribes and some environmentalists and residents, including the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who warned that the windmills could mar the ocean view. They would be visible from the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port.

Salazar said the project's developers can protect local culture and beauty while expanding the nation's supply of renewable energy.

The developers are hoping to begin construction this year and start generating power by late 2012 -- provided the venture isn't stopped by further lawsuits.

Members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Martha's Vineyard have vowed to go to court, saying the project would interfere with sacred rituals and desecrate long-submerged tribal burial sites. Other groups said they would sue immediately.

"It's far from over," Cape Cod resident Audra Parker of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. "Nantucket Sound needs to be off limits to Cape Wind and any other industrial development."

Salazar said the project had been exhaustively analyzed and added: "This is the final decision of the United States of America. We are very confident we will be able to uphold the decision against legal challenges."

The windmills would be about five miles off Cape Cod at their closest point to land and 14 miles off Nantucket at the greatest distance. According to simulations done for Cape Wind, on a clear day the turbines would look as if they were about a half-inch tall on the horizon at the nearest point and appear as specks from Nantucket.

The costs will be covered with private funding as well as potentially millions in federal stimulus money and tax credits. Cape Wind is negotiating to sell the electricity generated to a local utility.

Cape Wind eventually hopes to supply three-quarters of the power on Cape Cod, which has about 225,000 residents. Cape Wind officials say it will provide green jobs and a reliable domestic energy source.

The announcement came after a pair of deadly disasters earlier this month in West Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico illustrated the risks in extracting oil and coal to meet the country's energy needs.

Advocates are hoping Cape Wind can jump-start the entire U.S. offshore wind industry.

America has the world's largest onshore wind industry but lags behind other countries in offshore electric generation because of high upfront costs, heavy regulation and technological challenges.

Denmark installed the world's first offshore wind turbine 20 years ago, and there are offshore wind farms around Europe. China has built a commercial wind farm off Shanghai and plans several other projects.

Major U.S. projects are on the drawing board for the waters off New Jersey, Delaware and Texas. The U.S. Department of Energy envisions offshore wind farms accounting for 4 percent of the country's electric generating capacity by 2030.

Kennedy, who loved to sail the waters off Cape Cod, fought Cape Wind until the weeks before his death last summer, calling it a special-interest giveaway that could harm the ocean vista. Others say it could interfere with air and sea traffic and endanger birds and other wildlife.

The lead federal agency reviewing the project, the Minerals Management Service, issued a report last year saying the project poses no major environmental problems.

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., whose district includes Cape Cod, warned that the project will raise the region's power costs, disrupt an ocean sanctuary and set back the wind-power industry, all to benefit a private developer.

"Cape Wind is the first offshore wind farm to be built in the wrong place, in the wrong way, stimulating the wrong economies," Delahunt said Wednesday.

Home to some of the best-known beaches in the Northeast, Cape Cod has long been a destination for summer vacations and is famous for its small towns, colonial-era fishing villages and weathered, gray-shingled homes in its namesake architectural style.

Earlier this month, a federal panel, the Advisory Council on Historic Properties urged Salazar to reject the wind farm, saying it would have destructive effects on the view from dozens of historic sites.

Salazar said he worried that if the project were killed for such reasons, then no offshore wind farms would be possible on the Eastern Seaboard.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ice asteroids likely source of Earth's water: study



Astronomers have for the first time detected ice and organic compounds on an asteroid, a pair of landmark studies released on Wednesday says.
The discovery bolsters the theory that comets and asteroids crashing into Earth nearly four billion years ago seeded the planet with water and carbon-based molecules, both essential ingredients for life.
Working separately, two teams of scientists using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii found that the 24 Themis, which orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, is literally covered in a thin coating of frost.
It had long been suspected that the massive space rocks that bombarded our planet after the formation of the solar system contained frozen water, but the two studies, published in Nature, provide the first hard evidence.
Still, a mystery remained: How could frozen water persist over billions of years on an asteroid hot enough to vapourise surface ice?
Only if that layer of frost were continually replenished by the slow release of water vapour released from ice in the asteroid's interior, the researchers reasoned.
In other words, 24 Themis -- some 200 kilometres (125 miles) in diameter -- almost certainly contains far more water locked in its minerals than anyone suspected.
The findings also blur the distinction between rocky asteroids, once thought to be too close to the Sun to contain water, and comets, composed of much the same stuff along with ice and dust.
Comets form their signature tails when ice melts during the phase of orbit that brings them closest to the Sun.
"We had previously thought that only the comets could have brought a lot of water to Earth," said Andrew Rivkin, lead author of one of the studies and researcher at John Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.
"But we now have more reason to think that the asteroid impacts may also have brought a significant amount, especially if each one might have 20 to 30 percent water," he said in an email exchange.
"Much more water could have come in from asteroids than we thought.
Rivkin's team observed 24 Themis on seven dates from 2002 to 2008, analysing various wavelengths of reflected sunlight to determine the composition of the surface.
The study turned up a good match for water ice, with a modest helping of organic -- that is, carbon-containing -- material.
In a separate study, researchers led by Humberto Campins of the University of Central Florida arrived at the same conclusion using another technique.
"Knowing that Themis rotates once every 8.37 hours, they timed their observations to obtain spectra for the asteroid at four points in its rotation, creating a crude surface map," said Henry Hsieh, an astrophysicist at Queen's University in Belfast.
Not only did they find ice on the asteroid, they found that it was evenly distributed across its entire surface.
Taken together, the studies provide an unexpectedly window onto key aspects of our early Solar System, which came into being some 4.5 billion years ago.
"Our discoveries show that some objects can remain in the asteroid belt more or less unchanged since their formation," Rivkin said.
"We no longer have to infer the composition of ancient asteroid water from hydrated materials -- we can study the water directly because it is still around today," Hsieh noted in a commentary, also in Nature.
While life-giving water and carbon molecules are present on the asteroid, other factors will have discouraged new life forms emerging, Rivkin said.
"The lack of liquid water and an atmosphere, and the presence of very strong ultraviolet light from the Sun -- screened out by our atmosphere -- are all factors we think work against the formation of life," he said.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

India gets more say in World Bank functioning



Emerging economies, including China and India, were given a greater voice at the World Bank, as member nations approved a slight shift of voting shares in favour of developing countries, while agreeing to raise more money for global aid.The World Bank and The International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded their annual spring meeting here by increasing the voting rights of India, China and Brazil, among others, thus giving them more say in the institutions' functioning. This represents a total shift of 4.59 per cent to developing and transition countries since 2008, the IMF and the World Bank said in a joint communique after the meeting.As a result, India's voting power increased from 2.77 per cent to 2.91 per cent while China whose rights increased from 2.77 per cent to 4.42 per cent was the biggest benefactor. The shift places India at the seventh biggest place after the United States (15.85 per cent), Japan (6.84 per cent), China, Germany (4 per cent), France (3.75 per cent) and the United Kingdom (3.75 per cent). "The change in voting-power helps us better reflect the realities of a new multi-polar global economy where developingcountries are now key global players," said World Bank President Robert B Zoellick.The change gives emerging nations more say in how the bank is run and how its funds are disbursed. "This change in voting share, giving developing countries over 47 per cent, is a significant step," he said, hoping shareholders will review the approach in 2015.Membership of the financial institution gives certain voting rights that are the same for all countries, but there are additional votes which depend on a country's financial contributions to the organisation. Zoellick said at a time when multilateral agreements between developed and developing countries have proved elusive, this accord is all the more significant.This increase fulfils the Development Committee commitment in Istanbul in October 2009 to generate a significant increase of at least 3 percentage points in developing and Transition Countries (DTCs) voting power."We, in calculating this, looked at size of the world economy, using purchasing power but also exchange rate measures, but also, as a development institution, the contribution to development including the contribution to IDA, our fund for the poorest".The governments also approved over USD 90 billion in extra money for the World Bank's various arms that provide aid and capital to member countries.Zoellick said the shift in voting powers was designed to try to reflect past contributions, citing the example of Japan that has been "a very gracious contributor".

Money Mistakes You Might Be Making



If you could have more money in your checking account, you'd definitely take it, right? It probably comes as no shocker to you that it's really easy to let your funds slip away. But what you might find surprising is how simple it can be to turn things around for the better. Here are 5 common money mistakes with doable solutions.
Money Mistake #1: My Money Is Disappearing
No one starts the month planning to fritter away a small fortune, but that’s what can happen when minor expenses spiral out of control. It’s not just shopping at Saks that gets you into trouble. Seemingly innocent purchases — $15 jeans at Target, a few things for the kids at a two-for-one sale, the occasional Frappuccino — can do real damage to your bottom line.
What does it take to waste $10,000 a year? Just $27.40 a day. “You can undermine some of your most important goals with purchases you’ll never remember,” says Suzanna de Baca, president of Private Capital Solutions Group, a Des Moines, IA, investment advisory firm.
The fix: Know thyself financially. First step: Take five minutes and read through your latest bank statement. If the transactions seem unrecognizable and you have no idea why you went to the ATM a dozen times, spend a week tracking your spending (longer, if possible).
You can use a notebook, keep receipts in an envelope, try software like Quicken, or check out an online budgeting tool, like these two money sites we tested. Whichever you choose, find a money-tracking method that lets you see your purchasing patterns with fresh eyes

Money Mistake #2: I Throw Away Cash
Who would pass up free money? Maybe you, if you make only the minimum contribution to your employer’s 401(k) savings plan — or opt out of the plan on the grounds that money is tight. According to the 2008 Wachovia Retirement Survey, only about a quarter of women with 401(k)s contribute the maximum allowed. Puny 401(k) contributions mean you aren’t taking full advantage of any free matching funds your company offers. Says De Baca: “If your boss offered to add $25 to your weekly paycheck, would you turn it down? Of course not.” Most employers match all or part of the first 3 to 6 percent of pay employees contribute.
That might not sound like much, but take a look at the math: Assume your company will kick in 50 cents for every dollar you put in, up to 5 percent of your salary. If you’re 40 and making $40,000 but decide not to fund your 401(k), you could be giving up almost $230,000 over 25 years.
The fix: If money is so tight you can’t imagine saving two bucks, start small. You don’t have to put in the maximum $15,500 annual contribution ($20,500 if you’re 50 or older). Instead, increase your contribution by 1 percent of pay a year, until you get the full match. One painless way to save: When you get your next raise, use all or part of it to bump up your 401(k) contribution.
If your employer doesn’t offer a match, that doesn’t mean you should skip making contributions. Remember, a 401(k) lets you put away money tax-deferred. This doesn’t just lower your current tax rate; your earnings can really grow, because Uncle Sam isn’t taking a bite out of them.

Money Mistake #3: My Kid’s Budget Runneth Over
Many parents find themselves wrestling with financial discipline when it comes to their children, says Galia Gichon, creator of “My Money Matters” Kit, a box of financial tips and workbooks. Whether it’s snacks for the little ones at the market or new skate shoes for your tween, “it’s amazing how quickly saying yes can add up,” says Gichon, a New York City financial planner and mother of two.
The fix: Rather than simply saying no to your kids’ endless wish lists — which can lead to wrenching battles — protect your budget and sanity by teaching your children Money Management 101. “Distract and delay” tactics work especially well for children age 6 and under. If your young daughter is jumping up and down for something she wants at the store, says Gichon, “try focusing her attention on something else, or acknowledge what she wants and say that you can talk more about it later when you’re home.” You may have to endure a little complaining, but your child gets an important message about not buying things on a whim.

Money Mistake #4: I Never Saw a Windfall I Couldn’t Spend
Whether you receive a raise, a tax refund, or a generous birthday check from Aunt Dotty, it’s hard not to view a windfall as an excuse to go shopping. Splurging can be fun, but that’s rarely the best use of your extra cash. “Few Americans are saving enough to cover day-to-day crises, never mind the future,” says Jonathan Pond, author of Grow Your Money!
The fix: To make sure you don’t feel deprived, earmark some of the newfound money for a modest treat (Aunt Dotty would want it that way). Gichon suggests using 5 or 10 percent for something fun: “That way you do something for yourself — while deciding what to do with the rest.”
Put the remainder of the money where you won’t be as tempted to touch it. Consider an FDIC-insured, high-yield online savings account such as the one offered by ING Direct. It has no minimum balance requirement or fees, and this account typically pays higher-than-average interest rates.
Next, consider where the money would do you the most good. Tackle any small, urgent problems first — a sore tooth, the clunking sound your car makes, leaky windows. This will help avert the hardship of paying for a string of bigger expenses later on as little problems snowball into debt.Set aside some of your windfall for expenses that you can’t predict precisely but you know will be coming sometime. “You may not know when your cell phone will quit or the water heater will break, but they will,” Pond advises.

Money Mistake #5: I Forget What I’m Worth
If you’re a stay-at-home mom or you work part-time, you may not have enough life insurance. Many women are under­insured because they’ve under­estimated their income or the value of their contributions to the household. De Baca recalls one client whose wife died in her 30s and had only a $100,000 life insurance policy, which didn’t cover the need for child care for the couple’s young children or the housekeeping chores the client then required.
The fix: A rule of thumb to determine the amount of insurance coverage that you need — multiply your annual expenses by the number of years until your youngest child will turn 18. (Some parents may also want to factor in the future cost of their kids’ college.) Life insurance premiums actually have plummeted in recent years. So if you’re a healthy nonsmoker in your 30s or 40s, you can now buy a $500,000 term insurance policy for about $40 a month.
You and your partner should revisit your insurance coverage annually — or at least after a major event, like the birth of a child. “It takes a lot to run a household, and you want to be covered,” says De Baca

Aliens may exist but contact would hurt humans: Hawking



Aliens may exist but mankind should avoid contact with them as the consequences could be devastating, British scientist Stephen Hawking warned Sunday.
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," said the astrophysicist in a new television series, according to British media reports.
The programmes depict an imagined universe featuring alien life forms in huge spaceships on the hunt for resources after draining their own planet dry.
"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach," warned Hawking.
The doomsday scenario is suggested in the series "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking" on the Discovery Channel, which began airing in the United States on Sunday.
On the probability of alien life existing, he says: "To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational.
"The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like."
Glowing squid-like creatures, herds of herbivores that can hang onto a cliff face and bright yellow predators that kill their prey with stinging tails are among the creatures that stalk the scientist's fantastical cosmos.
Mankind has already made a number of attempts to contact extraterrestrial civilisations.
In 2008, American space agency NASA beamed the Beatles song "Across the Universe" into deep space to send a message of peace to any alien that happens to be in the region of Polaris -- also known as the North Star -- in 2439.
But the history of humanity's efforts to contact aliens stretches back some years.
The US probes Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972 and 1973 bearing plaques of a naked man and woman and symbols seeking to convey the positions of the Earth and the Sun.
Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977, each carry a gold-plated copper phonogram disk with recordings of sounds and images on Earth.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Too big to fail? India's IPL cricket in a spin



With its cocktail of celebrities and cheerleaders, the Indian Premier League's dizzy rise to become cricket's richest tournament is under threat, illustrating how politics and business don't mix.
A scandal over Junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor accused of influencing a bid for a team has sparked a tax investigation into the estimated $4.1 billion sport franchise, also signalling the inherent risks in the Asian giant's corporate juggernaut.
It is a scandal that touches much of India, including some of Bollywood's top stars who became team owners, senior politicians as well as some of India's richest executives who have all wanted a piece of the pie since the tournament kicked off in 2008.
"Like much of corporate India, the attitude behind IPL was with globalisation, liberalisation, we can take on the world," said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a well-known commentator in India.
"But the IPL has not been transparent. It has become big business, but a rather murky big business ... and shown the very cosy ties between very rich businessmen and politicians."
Lalit Modi, a 46-year-old businessmen known for his flashy suits and love of the high flying celebrity circuit, formed IPL in 2008, a short form of cricket that won millions of dollars in advertising and upset much of the traditional cricket world.
It was a by-product of an emerging India, when local companies like Tata bought brands like Jaguar and Land Rover for $2.3 billion to reflect the self-confidence of Indian business as it enjoyed one of the world's fasted economic growth rates.
Such was IPL's success that some team franchises were sold for more than the value of English Premier League football teams.
The tax probe has so far revealed nothing but huge newspaper headlines, and Modi says he has nothing to hide as taxmen visit offices around the country with cameras and lights in tail.
But whatever the results of the investigation, few in Indian believe that tournament will be the same freewheeling business extravaganza, and Modi is now under pressure to resign.

AT THE CUTTING EDGE
The IPL was at the cutting edge of cricket from day one when its use of cheerleaders sparked initial outcry as conservative India questioned whether it was ready for dancers with bulging breasts and gyrating bellies parading in packed stadia.
Modi himself called it all "cricketainment" -- with Bollywood stars watching matches in seats costing as much as $1,000 a game in a country where half the population earns less that $2 a day.
"IPL can be seen as a metaphor for the new Indian middle class which thrives on excess," wrote commentator Ronojoy Sen in the Times of India.
Modi showed that "Can Do" attitude on which Indian business people pride themselves -- the ability to deal with the country's notorious red tape, corruption and poor infrastructure.
When security concerns and a general election threatened the second year of the tournament, Modi simply transferred the whole event to South Africa in a few weeks.
"Forget Modi's brashness for a moment. There is an underlying admiration for Modi in India -- the fact that he could get through the red tape and get things done," said V. Ravichandar, managing director of Feedback consulting in Bangalore, which advises multinationals on doing business in India.
"That kind of thing goes down well in the Indian street."
But any admiration may not save the IPL. After Modi tweeted questioning the role of Tharoor in a team's $333 million bid, the minister was forced to resign.
India's tax department suddenly announced a probe into Modi and the IPL -- in what many saw in India as a blatant use by the government of tax authorities to win political points.
The political ramifications widened.
Suddenly key Congress party coalition ally and farm minister Sharad Pawar was on a collision course with his own government after he infuriated Congress by initially supporting Modi.
Pawar is president elect of the International Cricket Council and former head of the Indian cricket board -- just one of many politicians in India who also run cricket boards.
The tension came just as the government was seeking to secure its allies support for a possible vote in parliament over high food prices. The government would fall if it loses the vote.
Few think the government will fall. But the fact that a tweet from a businessman sparked worries about the government's coalition strength a few days later showed the nexus between business and politics in India -- and the fragility of both.
"The IPL was about getting things done despite everything," said Ravichandar. "It is a spirit of Indian enterprise with all the risks that it entails that holds a mirror to ourselves

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The World's Most Expensive Stuff 2010


The Rich Spend Richer

For the world's wealthiest, money is no object when extraordinary things enter the market—even during a global recession. Items may be deemed "priceless" for their cachet, beauty, rarity, or historic significance. Extremely well-to-do consumers have paid $3 million for a gold iPhone, but more unbelievable sums have been offered for elite luxury goods. To identify some of the biggest sales ever made, Bloomberg Businessweek combed through years of news reports and blogs and spoke with high-end retailers and auction houses. We looked at objects ranging from automobiles and boats to jewelry and electronics. The biggest price tag is for the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's new megayacht, the Eclipse, which is expected to cost as much as $1.2 billion. While average consumers cut spending during the recession, the market for diamond-studded accessories and high-end art has been surprisingly resilient. The economy has not deterred aficionados with the means to spend, says Bo Bengtsson, president of Transmission Audio, a company in Sweden that recently introduced a $2 million speaker set. "I've been getting calls from very rich people who are also huge music lovers," he says.

Most Expensive Television
PrestigeHD Supreme Rose Edition by Stuart HughesPrice: $2.3 million*
Swiss luxury television maker PrestigeHD asked Stuart Hughes of Goldstriker International to design a spectacular piece for the company, says Hughes. So he took a 55-inch PrestigeHD television and covered it in 28 kilograms of 18-carat rose gold and 72 diamonds. Alligator skin was hand sewn into the bezel. This limited edition TV, introduced just this year, surpasses Hughes' £1 million television for PrestigeHD, which uses 22-carat yellow gold and 48 diamonds. PrestigeHD CEO Simon M. Troxler says the company is close to closing its first contract for the Supreme Rose Edition and "we are very confident that the limited edition of only three TVs will be sold out soon."*Price converted from £1.5 million

Most Expensive Hotel Room
Royal Penthouse Suite, Hotel President Wilson in GenevaPrice: $65,000 per nightThis palatial suite, which occupies an entire floor of the hotel and measures 18,083 square feet, has 10 rooms and seven bathrooms. It was renovated in January 2009 to add a new private fitness area, according to a spokesperson.

Most Expensive Motorcycle
Dodge Tomahawk V10 Superbike Price: $700,000The Dodge Tomahawk, a 1,500-lb. motorcycle with four wheels, has a Dodge Viper's V10 engine and can go from zero to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, according to Edmunds.com. The top speed is estimated to be more than 300 mph. The vehicle, which made its debut at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, was reportedly priced at $550,000, but a Dodge spokesperson confirmed to Bloomberg Businessweek that two units were sold at an even higher $700,000.

Most Expensive Cell Phone
iPhone 3GS Supreme Rose by Stuart HughesPrice: $2.97 million*Stuart Hughes—who also designed the most expensive television—made headlines in 2009 when he crafted a 22-carat gold iPhone studded with 53 diamonds for an unnamed Australian businessman for £1.92 million. More recently, he says, he was commissioned to make an even pricier version of the phone in 18-carat rose gold with hundreds of diamonds, including a single-cut, 7.1-carat diamond for the main navigation button. *Price converted from £1.93 million

Most Expensive Golf Club
Long-Nose Putter Stamped "A.D.," attributed to Andrew DicksonPrice: $181,000An "A.D." stamp on this circa 18th century, long-nose putter is attributed to Andrew Dickson, the oldest known clubmaker to mark his clubs. He is said to have served as a caddy to the Duke of York as a young boy, according to Sotheby's. This item was estimated to sell for $200,000 to $300,000 but fetched $181,000 in a Sotheby's auction in New York in 2007.

Most Expensive Car
1954-55 Mercedes-Benz W196Price: $24 millionThink a brand-new $1.7 million Bugatti Veyron is expensive? Try the Mercedes-Benz W196, which won the Grand Prix in 1954 and 1955, and sold at auction in 1990 for a staggering $24 million. According to the U.K.'s Times Online Times Online, Mercedes donated the car to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in the 1980s, which later sold it for £1.5 million to finance a museum renovation. It was again sold in 1990 to a French industrialist for $24 million but changed hands once more to a German industrialist for less than half that sum.

Most Expensive House
Antilla Price: $1 billionAccording to a February report by Property Magazine, the most expensive house in the world, named Antilla (in picture above at left), is in downtown Mumbai, India, and will be the residence of Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani. The 27-story, 570-foot-tall tower has a helipad, a health club, and a six-floor garage that can hold 168 cars. Each level has gardens. It will be serviced by a staff of 600 people. Some reports list the price of the house at $2 billion. The architecture and design firms working on this project, Perkins + Will and Hirsch Bedner Associates, declined comment.

Most Expensive Yacht
EclipsePrice: £1.2 billionThis 560-foot-long yacht has two helipads, 11 guest cabins, two swimming pools, three launch boats, an aquarium, and a minisubmarine that can dive to 50 meters below the ocean surface, according to London's Daily Mail. The master bedroom and bridge have bulletproof glass, and the security system includes missile detection systems that warn of incoming rockets. The owner Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire who also owns Britain's Chelsea Football Club, reportedly fitted the yacht with a laser system that prevents paparazzi from taking photos. It was built by Blohm + Voss in Hamburg, Germany.

Most Expensive Speakers
Transmission Audio Ultimate SystemPrice: $2 million per pairWith a total of 12 units—four dipole subwoofers, two dipole mid-woofers, four dipole medium-frequency and high-frequency ribbon panels, and two dipole high-fidelity super ribbon panels—Transmission Audio's Ultimate speaker system is a hefty piece of equipment, spanning 37 feet and weighing 5 metric tons. All units are made from aircraft aluminum and have stands in polished red or black granite. The set was introduced in late 2009, and so far two pairs have been preordered, says Bo Bengtsson, president of Transmission Audio. None has yet been delivered, as the assembly time is about six months.

Most Expensive Ring
Chopard Blue Diamond RingPrice: $16.26 millionThe centerpiece of Chopard Blue Diamond Ring is a 9-carat blue diamond (in photo) with diamond shoulders. The 18-carat white gold band is paved with diamonds. It sold overseas in 2007 to a fancy color diamond collector, reportedly for $16,260,000, but a Chopard spokesperson says the estimated value of the ring today is $18,561,310.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hamptons Home Rents for $35,000 a Day



Bridgehampton - A Corcoran Bridgehampton property has rented for $500,000 for two weeks in July (or $35,000/day), the highest rental fee on record for the Hamptons. The record-breaking rental is an 11.5-acre estate known as Sandcastle which includes a 31,000 square foot, nine-bedroom, 11.5-bathroom main house, pool, guest house, tennis, squash and racquetball courts, bowling alley, skateboard half pipe, Movie Theater and more.

Corcoran president and CEO, Pamela Liebman remarked, "The Hamptons market has really bounced back. Our Hampton rental and sales businesses are way up with a 72 percent increase in rental activity in March alone. It's no surprise Sandcastle has secured a record-breaking rental fee. It is a remarkable property located in America's premiere resort community where demand, once again, is high and the properties unparalleled."

According to the Corcoran brokers representing the property, Evan Kulman and business partner, Gene Stilwell, "We are excited to be part of the highest rental transaction in the Hamptons." The owner and builder of the property, Joe Farrell, is the CEO of Farrell Building Company, a Bridgehampton-based luxury home building firm. The property is also listed for sale at $49.5 million.

The Corcoran Group is a leading residential real estate brokerage company in New York City, and operates 42 offices with 2,200 sales associates serving Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Hamptons, the North Fork, Shelter Island, Delray Beach and Palm Beach, Fla. The Corcoran Group is part of NRT LLC, the nation's largest residential real estate brokerage company. NRT, a subsidiary of Realogy Corporation, operates Realogy's company-owned real estate brokerage offices.

The volcanic cloud hovering over Wall Street, touched off by the SEC and the winds of regulatory change in D.C., is leaving wealthy bankers on edge.
But apparently not nervous enough to scale down their summer vacation spending.
According to Hamptons.com, a palatial estate in Bridgehampton, N.Y., has been rented out for $500,000 for two weeks. That works out to more than $35,000 a night, making it the highest price ever paid for a Hamptons rental.
Of course, Corcoran Group, which rented the place, won't disclose the name of the renter. And it isn't clear if the renter really is a Wall Streeter. A post on Newsday.com said a person close to the deal said the renter is "no one famous nor a company looking to do a big event, just a family willing to fork over $500,000 for their two-week stay."
Regardless, the eye-popping price is indicative of the broader rebound in property prices in the Hamptons, which relies heavily on Wall Street and other finance folks for demand

"The Hamptons market has really bounced back," said Corcoran Presidence and CEO Pamela Liebman. At a time when the broader housing market is seeing rising foreclosures, the Hamptons Bounce is another sign that "Richistan" has recovered, while the rest of the country hasn't.
So what do you get for $35,000 a night? You get 11.5 acres with a 31,000 square-feet home featuring nine bedrooms, 11.5 baths, a movie theater, tennis and raquetball courts, heated pool, disco, bowling alley and rock-climbing wall. (See pics here).
In case the renter decides he wants to keep the place, it also is for sale -- for a discounted $49.5 million.
Who do you think is paying $35,000 a night for a place in the Hamptons?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rolls-Royce Builds a Real Car: the 2011 Ghost




High-tech BMW underpinnings meet classic English cosseting in the new Ghost. Got $245,000?
I could afford a Rolls-Royce Ghost. All I'd need to do is sell my house and all my Greek treasury bills. (What? Oh, jeez. When did that happen?)
The question is, if I had $245,000 to $300,000 to spend on a car, would this be the car?


Blimey. It's certainly tempting. The new Roller Ghost, based on the chassis and electronics of the BMW 7-series (Rolls-Royce is now a wholly owned subsidiary of BMW) might be thought of as a 760Li shouted through God's holy megaphone, in a voice that sounds like Ian McKellen. Everything good that the Bimmer is, the Rolls Ghost is that, amplified and anglicized exponentially -- quieter, smoother, more luxurious and veddy, veddy powerful. With a bored-out version of BMW's direct-injection twin-turbocharged V12 (displacing 6.6 liters here) the Rolls rides a glowing mainspring filament of horsepower and torque unprecedented in company history, 563 hp and 575 pound-feet of torque.
In a car dedicated to serene sensations and sheer, gliding effortlessness, calling on this kind of thrust feels very much like going over Niagara in a beautifully appointed, leather-lined barrel. Zero to 60 mph goes by in 4.7 seconds and if you keep your Allen Edmonds fully planted in the shearling wool carpeting, you'll reach 120 mph in about 12 seconds. The eight-speed automatic transmission dispatches full-tilt gear changes with the barest perceptible flutter. There's a warm gathering sound inside the cabin, woodwinds more than brass, but it's not what you would call an exhaust note. Rather, it's the sound of inspiration. The opiated thrum inside Coleridge's ears? Like that.


The express elevator stops at an electronically limited 155 mph but there's little doubt the car could achieve 190 mph with nary a bead of sweat on guvnor's stiff upper lip.
This is no Phantom, and I think most would agree, that's a good thing. The Phantom -- the massive, 19-foot limousine launched by Rolls-Royce after BMW took over early in the last decade -- was obliged to be the ultimate Rolls, a big, scary Jungian archetype of a car, hurtling through our dreams. Mission accomplished.
The Ghost in all ways is a more measured, more realistic car. It is, first of all, much smaller -- 17.7 feet in length (17.1 inches shorter), 76.7 inches abeam (down 1.6 inches), 61 inches high (down 3.3 inches) and weighing 5,445 pounds (down 353 pounds). The Ghost suffers from none of the hypertrophic weirdness of the Phantom. It fits on two-lane roads and parking decks, and doesn't make babies cry.
It's also quite pretty. OK, sure, the front of the car -- with its narrow horizontal headlamps and tight rectangular grille -- looks like the Jetsons' robot cleaning woman, Rosie. But overall, this is a strong styling effort. The Rolls proprieties are observed, of course: the tall, long hood ending in a chromic bluff; the short front overhang; the tapering rear quarters drawn back from the wheels; the steeply sloped C-pillar; the high body-to-glass ratio.
And there are moments of genius here, too: the mirror symmetries between the doors, the reflective balance between the lower accent line trailing behind the front wheel arch and the chrome bow of the roof line.


Like the 7-series, the Ghost is a steel-bodied car with the approximate ductility of a submarine hatch. The Ghost's chassis stiffness -- the source of its fantastic ride quality, dynamic competence and hushed, oneiric quiet -- is all the more remarkable considering the four enormous holes in the body. These are where the doors go. As with the mega-Rolls, the Phantom, the Ghost has vast rear "coach doors," hinged at the back. Americans call them suicide doors on account of how much they cost.
In any event, the doors swing to nearly perpendicular to the body, making it possible to alight gracefully on the tall, upright chairs, rather than execute anything so low-born and cloddish as "sitting." Among the squillion or so options is the choice of lounge chairs in the rear cabin, fully reclining, massaging, and climate controlled. What's that? Your Honda doesn't have those? Hmm. Pity.
The ironwork under the car is direct from Bavaria, including the front and rear pneumatic suspension (the 7-series has air springs only in the rear); active roll stabilization; smart brakes; and dynamic chassis control, which automatically tightens the suspension to complement what the British love to call more "spirited" driving.

One system that the 7-series has that the Rolls doesn't -- and could use -- is the integral active steering, which at low speeds tightens the car's turning circle by deflecting the rear wheels up to 2.5 degrees. At nearly 18 feet, and with a lazy steering ratio of 19.9:1, the Ghost does not exactly caper through tight midtown traffic.
There was a time when BMW's ownership of Rolls-Royce -- with ever the newsreel unpleasantness of World War II playing in the background -- was a wee bit awkward. That time has largely passed. Still, the last thing Rolls wants is for people to dismiss the Ghost as a re-badged 7-series. Bad marketing. The company concedes only that 20% of parts are common to both cars and those parts are deep mechanical bits (alternator, air-conditioning compressor) invisible to the buyer. However, if you drive the cars back to back you'll recognize a lot of similarities, particularly in the iDrive system -- which Rolls calls the "multimedia" system -- that controls much of the cabin's functionality. BMW's night vision? Check. Adaptive cruise control? Check. Lane Departure system? Jawohl, Herr Colonel. The Ghost's steel chassis is constructed in the quaint English village of Dingolfing, Germany. Even the car's warning chimes and beeps speak German.
What's surprising, and gratifying, is just how unalike each the cars feel, the tactility of the cars, the sensory presence. Everything about the Rolls feels gusseted, wrapped in velvet, strung with silk, double-isolated with hydro-elastic this-and-that and suspended on bushings made of fetal pigskin.
For all their similarities, they are just very different cars. The BMW is lean. The Rolls is lush.
The specialness of the Rolls resides in its exquisite selection of interior materials. The piano-black trim on the steering wheel, the faux Bakelite, the chrome key window switches and organ-stop vent pulls, the frosted glass around the iDrive indicators, leather and veneers galore. I count among my favorites the luminous blue-white gauges in the instrument cluster -- including the cool but irrelevant "power reserve" gauge. Also, the thin-section steering wheel rim -- very like a Rolls -- wrapped in leather of somebody's most sacred cow.
Rolls says it takes 20 days to put it all together and it seems to me not a minute is wasted.
Rolls-Royce has, to my mind, just built its first real car. Here, finally, the promise of the BMW-owned Rolls-Royce is fulfilled, with a car that combines the insuperable technology of the Werks with the enormous charisma and craft of British luxury. Here the Old Saxon tongues, English and German, come together in perfect lyric.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

How to Be a Savvy Cheapskate


Don't judge this penny pincher by his cover. Jeff Yeager may be the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Roadmap to True Riches--which one might assume to be filled with coupon-clipping strategies and saving tricks--but his philosophy isn't as much about how to get more for less as it is learning to live with less, period. Sure, he blogs about "12 Surprising Ways to Reuse Aluminum Foil," making cider bisque out of your jack-o-lantern, and using just enough toilet paper, but the bigger goal here is to live green, not just cheap. Ultimately, Yeager says, consumers should direct their frugal efforts toward downsizing their lifestyle--in major areas like housing and transportation--rather than saving a buck here and there. U.S. News recently spoke to Yeager about the most effective ways to economize. Excerpts:
Explain your 'cheapskate' philosophy.
I don't really write about penny-pinching tips. I focus more on quality-of-life and happiness issues ... especially the idea of deciding what "enough" is for you. Most people don't ask themselves that. What would be enough money and enough stuff for you? My wife and I answered that question early in marriage, in our 30s. We were living a comfortable lifestyle--why would we want to spend every last dollar we earned as our salaries increased over the years? We established what I call a "permanent standard of living," a level we still live comfortably at today, even though we could afford to spend more ... we managed, for example, to pay off our house in 15 years and essentially retire in our 40s. It's all about the decisions you make.
[See 21 Things We're Learning to Live Without.]
What sorts of decisions?
Well, for me, it's all about the bigger financial decisions in life. I rail against the latte factor ... for 20 years, pundits have been saying that if you give up your daily Starbucks cup and bank the money, you can attain financial security. That may work on paper, but I don't think it works that way in reality, for most people. One [of the bigger decisions] is housing. I'm a big believer in finishing in your starter home: Buy a modest home when you're first starting out and ignore people who tell you not to pay it off right away. Pay off your mortgage as quickly as you can, settle in and get to know your neighbors, and make your house your home. The conventional wisdom before the housing bubble burst was that if you could afford to pay down your mortgage early, instead take that extra money and invest it because mortgage money is relatively inexpensive to borrow. The financial pundits at the time said that any idiot could make a return on their investment above 5 percent or 4 percent of their mortgage interest. ... Well, it didn't work out that way.
These days with the tight economy, you hear so much in the media about economizing. But that's almost always about "how to get more for less" ... how to clip a coupon or find a bargain. But I think we're missing what could be the golden epiphany of these hard times: We shouldn't be asking ourselves "How can we afford it?" We should instead be asking, "Do we really need it?" There's lots of social science that shows that once you're above poverty level, more money and more stuff doesn't contribute to happiness. I believe that most Americans would be happier, and the quality of their lives would increase, if they would only spend and consume less. If you believe as I do, I think there will be a lot of upsides to the current recession in the long run.
[See 12 Hidden Costs of Homeownership.]
What are those upsides?
For example, when gas was $4, we all complained about it, but two-thirds of people reported that they changed their driving habits as a result. And unless I'm missing all the horror stories, nothing awful happened because of it. Certainly driving less is better for the environment and better for our pocketbooks, so where's the downside? Another example: Since the start of the recession, the size of new homes being built in the U.S. has dropped by about 11 percent ... 300 fewer square feet. Again, that's a change, but I don't think that's a bad thing. Think about the tremendous financial impact that the decision to live in a smaller home will have on your life. Not only it cost more to buy [a larger home] in the first place, but once you have those extra 300 square feet, you have to insure it, decorate it, heat and cool it, maintain it, repair it, and pay taxes on it. That's the kind of fundamental decision that has enslaved so many Americans to the yoke of too much debt. So apparently now were going to be living in slightly smaller houses, but why is that a bad thing?
[How to Gauge Your Middle-Class Status.]
If you read the book The Not So Big House, it says that as humans, we're uncomfortable in big spaces. If we have a chance to move into the mansion on the hill, we're not really comfortable with it. We're learning some lessons in the recession. Personal savings rates are up. Even though things are tighter now, we're somehow magically able to put money in the bank. Go figure.
Aside from driving less and being happy with a smaller house, what other significant things we should cut back on?
Eating lower on the food chain, for one. I try to spend only a dollar a pound on food. It's a myth that it costs more to eat healthy. You can spend a lot, but when you think about the kinds of things we should eat the most of--whole grains, legumes, and produce--they tend to cost less per pound than things that are bad for us like red meat and many processed foods that are high in trans saturated fats. I encourage people to eat more meals at home. Forty-five percent of the average U.S. family food budget is spent on food prepared outside of home. And they cost an average of 80 percent more than preparing the same food at home. There's a lot of waste, too. According to the USDA, about 25 percent of food is thrown away, so arguably you could reduce your spending here by 25 percent simply by being smarter about food storage and portion control.
You write a lot about the relationship between being frugal and environmentally conscious on thedailygreen.com. Any takeaways?
For most Americans, the greenest thing you can do is consume less, which probably means spending less. I think there's some hypocrisy in the current green movement, even though I've been an ardent environmentalist my whole adult life. I fear that the so-called green movement is catching on now because there's a bunch of cool, expensive green stuff we can by. It's become what I call a "cause de stuff." Much of the current environmental movement in the U.S. seems to be built around the very thing it should be seeking to combat ... rampant consumerism. Take green cleaning products. They tend to be more expensive than the toxic products. But you can clean almost everything with baking soda and vinegar, which are safer for the environment than green products and cost less than any other cleaning products, green or toxic. Hybrid vehicles are another example. It's cool now to own a $35,000 Prius, although driving a gas guzzler to work instead is better for the environment IF you carpool with four friends. Sure, the greenest choice would be to carpool in a hybrid, but I don't see Americans being that committed to environmentalism. We're really mostly committed to buying cool, expensive, green stuff. That's the hypocrisy I'm talking about.
You must make big purchases every now and then. What's your strategy?
I'm a big believer in the Consumer Reports approach to shopping. Buyer's remorse is at epidemic proportions. How is spending money on something we'll regret later a good thing? It makes us poorer, and clearly hasn't made us happy. My advice is to have a mandatory waiting period. Wait at least a week after you see something in the store that you want. I guarantee that half the time, you won't go buy it.
Once or twice a year, I look at the things I've spent more money on, and ask myself one simple question: "If I had it to do over again, would I have spent that money?" I call it a 'what heck was I thinking? audit." Maybe you'll see that you spend a lot on restaurant meals that you regret. I noticed that when I had a regular 9-to-5 job, when I was stressed at work, I'd often buy things I regretted later. It's a way of helping you learn from your mistakes and change your spending behavior.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Israel bans imports of Apple iPad





JERUSALEM – Israel has banned imports of Apple Inc.'s hottest new product, the iPad, citing concerns the powerful gadget's wireless signals could disrupt other devices.

Customs officials said Thursday they have already confiscated about 10 of the lightweight tablet computers since Israel announced the new regulations this week. The ban prevents anyone — even tourists — from bringing iPads into Israel until officials certify that they comply with local transmitter standards.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission allows devices with Wi-Fi capability to broadcast at higher power levels than are allowed in Europe and Israel — meaning that the iPad's stronger signal could throw off others' wireless connections, Schubert said.

"If you operate equipment in a frequency band which is different from the others that operate on that frequency band, then there will be interference," said Nati Schubert, a senior deputy director for the Communications Ministry. "We don't care where people buy their equipment. ... But without regulation, you would have chaos."

Some Israelis successfully got the popular devices into Israel before the ban.

Amnon, a software developer who legally brought an iPad into Israel but asked that his last name be withheld to avoid potential government repercussions, said he and other high-tech businessmen need the iPad to develop new applications for the device.

"There are several hundred people in Israel who make their livelihood developing apps ... and there are going to be companies that suffer, because they can't deliver the services they're supposed to be delivering," he said.

The iPad combines the features of a notebook computer with the touch-pad functions of the iPod. It went on sale in the U.S. on April 3. Apple this week delayed its international launch until May 10, citing heavy sales in the U.S.

Israeli officials said the ban has nothing to do with trade and is simply a precaution to assure that the iPad doesn't affect wireless devices already in use in Israel.

Although Israeli standards are similar to those in many European nations, Israel is the only country so far to officially ban imports.

Schubert said he expects the problem to be resolved as Apple moves closer to the international release.

In the meantime, confiscated iPads will be held by customs — for a daily storage fee — until their owners depart the country or ship the gadgets back to the U.S. at their own expense.

Apple's chief distributor in Israel, iDigital, declined to comment on the Communications Ministry's decision, and messages left at Apple's headquarters in California were not immediately returned.


2010's Hot New Hotels



Alila Villas Uluwatu

Desa Pecatu, Bali

This fabulous clifftop pleasure complex on Bali's booming south coast is the region's first fully successful marriage of postmodern cool and tropical hot. The Singaporean design partnership WOHA has created a startlingly original vocabulary that alternates monumentality and intimacy, classicism and funk—and lets sky and sea shine through at every turn. The public places and 84 villas spill across a hillside overlooking the ocean with an organic ease that makes the place feel like it's been there forever, and its smart eco-planning may let it stay there almost that long: Flat roofs are insulated with local volcanic rock, and water from washing machines and baths is filtered for garden use. Rooms have ceilings of local bamboo, and the hardwood is recycled from retired Indonesian railway sleeper cars. The yoga pavilion is a little architectural masterpiece on a verdant knoll, and the two restaurants—one serving traditional Indonesian and Balinese, the other contemporary Western fare—are excellent. Perhaps one of the resort's most beautiful touches is a private banquet room with a vaulted clerestory studded with 2,500 glittering copper batik stamps.Which room to book: Villa 409, a one bedroom at one of the resort's highest points, offers total privacy and a wide ocean view.



Capella Pedregal

Cabo San Lucas

From the resort's entrance via a jaw-dropping 1,000-foot-long tunnel carved through the mountain, to the seafood restaurant El Farall√≥n tucked into a cliff above the ocean, to the views of whales and dolphins splashing in the surf, the focus at Capella's new property on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula is on making the impossible feel routine. Eight contemporary buildings (some of which back right into the mountains) house 66 rooms on 24 acres of dramatic yet manicured bluffs. Huge stone vases, metal turtle sculptures, Jurassic-size shells, and dozens of varieties of cactus dot the property, while three curvy public pools—two freshwater and one salty—snake through the grounds. Rooms, the smallest of which measure 820 square feet, take on a Mexican gothic look and, happily, include private plunge pools, stand-alone tubs, one-button fireplaces, and complimentary minibars. Personal assistants assigned to each guest will eagerly fulfill even the most self-indulgent request. Lunch options consist of upscale twists on the usual burgers-and-salads resort fare, but the breakfast buffet at Don Manual's is elevated to craft with bountiful fruits and fresh pastries and no fewer than five milk options, all presented in a warm, rustic kitchen.

Which room to book: Ocean View rooms on the third and fourth floors have the same panoramic views as the pricier suites.




Terranea Resort

Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Out-of-towners don't typically find themselves in Rancho Palos Verdes, a moneyed burb 20 miles south of Los Angeles airport, but with the opening of this sunny and sophisticated resort that's quickly changing. From its perch above the Pacific, Terranea tumbles across 102 acres scented with sage scrub and pine trees, and consists of 582 accommodations, from honey-colored guest rooms in the main building to stand-alone casitas with three bedrooms and your very own outdoor fire pit. The decor throughout is a mix of Spanish hacienda (elaborately tiled floors, graceful archways, even valets dressed like gauchos) and seaside lodge (rooms have seashell lamps and bleached-wood furnishings), with a splash of California modernism (the stark serenity of the adults-only pool is the essence of SoCal cool, while the family pool has rainbow-striped cabanas and even a modest waterslide). For fun, there's a huge spa, a small beach, and guided kayaking and hiking expeditions. Of the resort's two formal restaurants, the Catalina Room is the more popular, but the waitstaff's kindness and enthusiasm are more impressive than the food. Opt instead for the local brew and the avocado burgers at Nelsons, the clifftop pub with spectacular views.

Which room to book: The ones with the best views are a trek from the lobby, except for those on the higher floors overlooking the resort pool.





The Allison

Newberg, Ore.

Oregon's Willamette Valley finally has a resort on a par with its award-winning wines. Fully utilizing the 35-acre property's natural beauty (including vineyards and hazelnut orchards), designers have blurred the boundary between inside and out. Everywhere, it seems, there's a spectacular view: from the lobby's fireside "living room"; from the indoor infinity pool, with its glass wall that opens; even from your bathtub, thanks to a retractable screen. Extensive use of rough-hewn stone and wood surfaces, along with muted golds, greens, and browns, invite the agricultural landscape inside. Offering respite after a long day of winery tours, the 85 guest rooms are at once capacious (starting at 490 square feet) and cosseting (gas fireplace, terrace or balcony, wine glass–stocked wet bar). The staff are genuinely friendly and have a knack for anticipating guests' needs: Noticing our reviewer's running shoes, the bellman offered running maps. The hotel's dining room, Jory, is everything you'd hope from a restaurant named for the region's native soil, with a terroir-focused seasonal menu and a 32-page wine list, including well over 100 Oregon pinot noirs alone.Which room to book: With million-dollar views, upper-floor rooms are just $20 to $30 more than garden-level rooms.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nuclear Security Summit



WASHINGTON – Presidents, prime minsters and top officials from 47 countries mingled Monday on the threshold of President Barack Obama's nuclear proliferation summit, the largest assembly hosted by a U.S. leader since the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945.

Obama wants world leaders to confront the threat of nuclear arms falling into the hands of terrorists — a specter he labels "the single biggest threat to U.S. security." And he's looking at the high-profile security forum here to help him reach his goal of ensuring that all nuclear materials worldwide are secured from theft or diversion within four years.

A few hours ahead of Obama's official Monday afternoon welcome for the guests at a convention center here, he sat down for a series of meetings with international visitors, including Jordan's King Abdullah II.

On the eve of the meeting, Obama said that nuclear materials in the hands of al-Qaida or another terrorist group "could change the security landscape in this country and around the world for years to come."

At a parallel unofficial conference of more than 200 international nuclear experts, participants said too many around the world don't share the concern that nuclear terrorism is an urgent threat.

"There is a great complacency among policy makers around the world that terrorist groups couldn't make a nuclear bomb," said Matthew Bunn of Harvard.

Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy focused on his home region, where both Pakistan and India are building up their nuclear arsenals.

"Unfortunately, I do not see this concern either in Pakistan or India about nuclear terrorism," he said. "Both countries do not see the seriousness of this situation."

American nonproliferation expert Robert Gallucci told the conference he believes it's "probable" over time that terrorists will detonate an atomic weapon in a city somewhere, not necessarily in the U.S. or Europe.

Clearly with Pakistan and India in mind, the former U.S. diplomat said, "Any country that has suffered serious terrorist attacks, foreign or domestic, needs to take this threat seriously."

While sweeping or even bold new strategies were unlikely to emerge from the two-day gathering, the president declared himself pleased with what he heard in warm-up meetings Sunday with the leaders of Kazakhstan, South Africa, India and Pakistan.

"I feel very good at this stage in the degree of commitment and a sense of urgency that I have seen from the world leaders so far on this issue," Obama said. "We think we can make enormous progress on this, and this then becomes part and parcel of the broader focus that we've had over the last several weeks."

He was referring to what had gone before this, the fourth leg of his campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The United States is the only country to use the weapons, two bombs dropped on Japan to force its surrender in World War II.

The high-flown ambition, which the president admits will probably not be reality in his lifetime, began a year ago in Prague when he laid out plans for significant nuclear reductions and a nuclear-weapons-free world.

In the meantime, he has approved a new nuclear policy for the United States, promising last week to reduce America's nuclear arsenal, refrain from nuclear tests and not use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them. North Korea and Iran were not included in that pledge because they do not cooperate with other countries on nonproliferation standards.

That was Tuesday, and two days later, on the anniversary of the Prague speech, Obama flew back to the Czech Republic capital where he and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a new treaty that reduces each side's deployed nuclear arsenal to 1,550 weapons. Medvedev also arrives Monday to sign a long-delayed agreement to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium from Cold War-era nuclear weapons — the type of preventive action Obama wants the summit to inspire.

Throughout the two-day gathering, Iran will be a subtext as Obama works to gain support for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran for its refusal to shut down what the United States and many key allies assert is a nuclear weapons program. Iran says it only wants to build reactors to generate electricity.

In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Medvedev agreed that Iran's nuclear program must be watched closely, but he said sanctions on the regime would have to be smart and effective because they often don't work.

"They should not lead to humanitarian catastrophe, where the whole Iranian community would start to hate the whole world," the Russian president said.

He rejected the idea of imposing sanctions on Iran's petroleum industry.

"I don't think on that topic we have a chance to achieve a consolidated opinion of the global community," Medvedev said.

Support from Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who sees Obama privately Monday, is critical, but neither is firmly committed to a new sanctions regime.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Time to Storm the Castle?



The million-plus market seems ripe for falling prices. Until now it has been lower-end homes, which saw the sharpest run-up during the boom, that have borne the brunt of the housing bust. Though there aren't national statistics that track the million-dollar market, local markets show that prices for top properties have room to drop. For example, the bottom third of the Los Angeles area market—currently homes under $300,000—has seen prices fall by 52.5% since the market peak in 2006, returning to April 2003 levels, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller indexes. Prices for the top third of the market—currently homes above $510,000—have fallen by 27.3% from the peak, to March 2004 levels. While prices at the bottom of the market gained 5% over the last quarter of 2009 from the previous quarter, high-end home prices dropped 0.5%.

Home sales across the board remain sluggish. Sales of existing homes fell 0.6% last month to a seasonally adjusted rate of 5.02 million units, while new-home sales fell by 2.2% last month to lows last seen in 1963. But the mismatch of supply and demand is now widest in the seven-figure market. In the most coveted Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, for example, supplies are fairly tight up to about $900,000. But it is a buyer's market between that level and $2 million, says James W. Nellis II of Re/Max Allegiance, a local broker.

That makes for some deep discounts. In Mill Valley, Calif., the price on one four-bedroom home was reduced March 11 to $2 million from $3 million. The house has 2,500 square feet of decks overlooking San Francisco Bay, says the listing agent, Suzy Doyle. On Ranch Gate Road in Chula Vista, Calif., a foreclosed home with six bedrooms is being offered at $675,000. In 2006, when it was new, the home sold for $1.3 million.

Few people consider million-dollar homes cheap, of course. Stretching to buy a big home comes with obvious risks. Prices may be falling, but no one knows where the bottom is. Marc Carpenter, a real-estate agent in San Diego, cautions buyers in that battered market that, "If you buy now, [you should] plan on prices reducing over time."

Another potential pitfall is that higher-end houses are much harder to value than lower priced cookie-cutter dwellings. Often, high-end homes are unique, and the prices they fetch may have to do with such intangibles as an ocean view or an address with more snob appeal than those just blocks away. That makes it much harder for buyers to find comparable sales indicative of true market value.
Bargain hunters also need to be realistic. They aren't likely to get a steal on the best-preserved homes in the nation's top neighborhoods—places like Central Park West in Manhattan, Santa Barbara, Calif., or the exclusive parts of Boulder, Colo. Supply is permanently constrained in such areas because there is little room to build. And lots of people with money are eager to move in, so prices are likely to come down only slightly.

The best deals will be on high-end homes that might need work or aren't in the most highly sought-after locations. That leaves plenty of coveted neighborhoods with good schools and amenities to choose from.

Despite the risks, the mortgage market might be suggesting that shoppers buy sooner rather than later. Many forecasters predict that interest rates will rise from today's unusually low levels, in part because the Federal Reserve this month is ending its heavy purchases of mortgage securities. Even if waiting another year might bring lower prices, at least some of that advantage could be wiped out by an interest-rate spike.

Interest rates play a huge role in affordability—and even more so in high-end markets. A $1.2 million home today might require a 25% down payment, says Lou Barnes, a mortgage banker in Boulder. At today's rate of about 5.75% for a 30-year "jumbo" mortgage, that would mean a monthly payment of $5,252. But if rates were to rise to 6.5%, the monthly payment would rise to $5,688. The home's price would have to fall $1.1 million to keep the monthly payment at a comparable $5,215.

On the demand side, the technicalities of the mortgage market are thinning the ranks of million-dollar home buyers more than usual. Most buyers need a mortgage and would much prefer a cheaper, mainstream one backed by Fannie Mae , Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration. But loans that meet the government's criteria can be no larger than $417,000 in most of the U.S.; in higher-cost areas like New York and San Francisco, that limit stretches to $729,750.

Loans above those limits are considered jumbos. While rates on jumbos are way down from a high of about 7.9% in October 2008, they remain well above the 5.1% found on conventional loans guaranteed by Fannie or Freddie, according to HSH Associates. What's more, lenders also require heftier down payments for jumbo loans—in some cases 25% or more of the home's value.
The shrinking pool of potential buyers is giving people of means unusual bargaining power. The inventory of all listed homes in February was enough to last 8.6 months at the current sales rate, according to the National Association of Realtors, a trade group. For those priced above $1 million, the supply was enough to last nearly 32 months.

'Perfect Time to Buy'
For these reasons, "this is the perfect time to buy," says Eric Awad, a neurologist in Atlanta who thinks market conditions are forcing sellers of high-end homes to knuckle under. He and his wife, Nachwa Jarkas, an assistant professor at Emory University, are eager to trade up from their town home and buy a four-bedroom house in Atlanta's posh Buckhead district. They are looking in the range of $1 million to $1.2 million, though Dr. Awad hopes to "knock the price down" below $1 million.

Like many potential buyers of high-end homes, the couple has a big hurdle to clear: Before buying, they need to sell their town home, which is on the market for $575,000, and they have no idea how long it will take for them to find a buyer. In this still-troubled real-estate market, success favors buyers who don't have to sell first.

Israeli unveils tank-defense system of the future



HAIFA, Israel – On a dusty, wind-swept field overlooking the Mediterranean, a small team of researchers is putting the final touches on what Israel says is a major game changer in tank defense: a miniature anti-missile system that detects incoming projectiles and shoots them down before they reach the armored vehicles.

If successful, the "Trophy" system could radically alter the balance of power if the country goes to war again against Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon or Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Its performance could also have much wider implications as American troops and their Western allies battle insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think people will be watching the Israelis roll this thing out and see if they can get the hang of it," said John Pike, director of the military information Web site GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia. "The future of the United States army is riding on the proposition that something like this can work."

The Trophy is believed to be the first of a series of so-called "active defense" systems to become operational. Such systems aim to neutralize threats before they strike the tank. In the past, tanks have relied on increasingly thick layers of armor or "reactive" technology that weakens an incoming rocket upon impact by setting off a small explosion.

Israeli weapons maker Rafael, the developer of the Trophy, says the system has been in the works for years, but the bitter experience of Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon gave the project an extra push.

Developers say the Trophy can stop any anti-tank rocket in the formidable Hezbollah arsenal, which struck dozens of Israeli tanks and killed at least 19 Israeli tank crewmen during their monthlong war.

"We can cope with any threat in our neighborhood, and more," said Gil, the Trophy's program manager at Rafael. Citing security considerations, the company would not permit publication of his last name.

Israeli analyst Yiftah Shapir said it is premature to tell whether the Trophy can make a major difference, however. He said the army must cope with the high costs of the system and determine exactly how it will be used.

"When everyone knows that it works properly, it will change the battlefield," he said.

Israeli media have said the cost is about $200,000 per tank. Rafael refused to divulge the price of the system, saying only that it's a "small fraction" of the cost of a tank.

Gil and his small team of scientists conduct tests at a site in the outer reaches of Rafael's sprawling headquarters in northern Israel — firing rocket-propelled grenades, Sager rockets, and TOW and Cornet missiles at a lone tank set up in front of a massive fortified wall. The results are analyzed in a concrete hut loaded with laptops and flat-screen monitors.

The tiny Trophy system, lodged behind small rectangular plates on both sides of the tank, uses radar to detect the incoming projectiles and fires a small charge to intercept them, said Gil.

After firing, the system quickly reloads. The entire process is automated, holds fire if the rocket is going to miss the tank, and causes such a small explosion that the chances of unintentionally hurting friendly soldiers through collateral damage is only 1 percent, the company says.

Pike, the military analyst, said systems like the Trophy are considered the way of the future for ground warfare. The technology is a key component of the U.S. "Future Combat System," the master plan for the American military, he said. The U.S. and Russia are developing similar systems.

If the technology works, he said it will reduce the need for heavy armor on tanks — resulting in lighter vehicles that are easier to transport and deploy and are more nimble on the battlefield. But, he noted, "it's a lot easier to get it to work on a test range than it is to get it to work on a battlefield."

Lova Drori, Rafael's executive vice president for marketing, said "there is a lot of interest" internationally in the Trophy and he expects "quite a few customers" in the coming years.

Rafael officials said the Trophy has passed more than 700 live tests, and already has been installed in some Israeli Merkava 4 tanks in a pilot project.

In a statement, the army said "dozens of tanks should be outfitted with the new system" by the end of the year, adding that Trophy contributes to "maintaining a strategic advantage over enemy forces."

More than three years later, the 2006 war continues to shake Israel's defense establishment. Upward of 1,000 Lebanese were killed in the fighting, according to tallies by the Lebanese government, humanitarian groups and The Associated Press. In all, 159 Israelis were killed. The war ended in a stalemate and is largely viewed in Israel as a defeat.

The Trophy is the latest in a series of new systems. State-owned Israel Military Industries is producing "Iron Fist," an anti-missile defense that is expected to be installed on Israeli armored personnel carriers next year.

That system takes a different approach from Trophy, first using jamming technology that can make the missile veer off course, and if that fails, creating a "shock wave" to blow it up, said Eyal Ben-Haim, vice president of the company's land-system division.

State-run Rafael is also developing "Iron Dome," which can shoot down the short-range Katyusha rockets that rained down on Israel in 2006, as well as Hamas rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Iron Dome is expected to be deployed by this summer near Gaza.

The Israeli air force recently unveiled a squadron of unmanned airplanes capable of reaching Iran, the key backer of Hezbollah and Hamas militants.

Rafael has also developed an unmanned naval boat called the Protector, which it says is already prowling the waters off the Gaza coast. The Israeli navy confirmed the Protector is being tested, but gave no further details.

Israel unveils anti-missile system of the future



On a dusty, wind-swept field overlooking the Mediterranean, a small team of researchers is putting the final touches on what Israel says is a major game changer in tank defense: a miniature anti-missile system that detects incoming projectiles and shoots them down before they reach the armored vehicles.

If successful, the "Trophy" system could radically alter the balance of power if the country goes to war again against Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon or Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Its performance could also have much wider implications as American troops and their Western allies battle insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think people will be watching the Israelis roll this thing out and see if they can get the hang of it," said John Pike, director of the military information Web site GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia. "The future of the United States army is riding on the proposition that something like this can work."

The Trophy is believed to be the first of a series of so-called "active defense" systems to become operational. Such systems aim to neutralize threats before they strike the tank. In the past, tanks have relied on increasingly thick layers of armor or "reactive" technology that weakens an incoming rocket upon impact by setting off a small explosion.

Israeli weapons maker Rafael, the developer of the Trophy, says the system has been in the works for years, but the bitter experience of Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon gave the project an extra push.

Developers say the Trophy can stop any anti-tank rocket in the formidable Hezbollah arsenal, which struck dozens of Israeli tanks and killed at least 19 Israeli tank crewmen during their month long war.

"We can cope with any threat in our neighborhood, and more," said Gil, the Trophy's program manager at Rafael. Citing security considerations, the company would not permit publication of his last name.

Israeli analyst Yiftah Shapir said it is premature to tell whether the Trophy can make a major difference, however. He said the army must cope with the high costs of the system and determine exactly how it will be used.

"When everyone knows that it works properly, it will change the battlefield," he said.

Israeli media have said the cost is about $200,000 per tank. Rafael refused to divulge the price of the system, saying only that it's a "small fraction" of the cost of a tank.

Gil and his small team of scientists conduct tests at a site in the outer reaches of Rafael's sprawling headquarters in northern Israel -- firing rocket-propelled grenades, Sager rockets, and TOW and Cornet missiles at a lone tank set up in front of a massive fortified wall. The results are analyzed in a concrete hut loaded with laptops and flat-screen monitors.

The tiny Trophy system, lodged behind small rectangular plates on both sides of the tank, uses radar to detect the incoming projectiles and fires a small charge to intercept them, said Gil.

After firing, the system quickly reloads. The entire process is automated, holds fire if the rocket is going to miss the tank, and causes such a small explosion that the chances of unintentionally hurting friendly soldiers through collateral damage is only 1 percent, the company says.

Pike, the military analyst, said systems like the Trophy are considered the way of the future for ground warfare. The technology is a key component of the U.S. "Future Combat System," the master plan for the American military, he said. The U.S. and Russia are developing similar systems.

If the technology works, he said it will reduce the need for heavy armor on tanks -- resulting in lighter vehicles that are easier to transport and deploy and are more nimble on the battlefield. But, he noted, "it's a lot easier to get it to work on a test range than it is to get it to work on a battlefield."

Lova Drori, Rafael's executive vice president for marketing, said "there is a lot of interest" internationally in the Trophy and he expects "quite a few customers" in the coming years.

Rafael officials said the Trophy has passed more than 700 live tests, and already has been installed in some Israeli Merkava 4 tanks in a pilot project.

In a statement, the army said "dozens of tanks should be outfitted with the new system" by the end of the year, adding that Trophy contributes to "maintaining a strategic advantage over enemy forces."

More than three years later, the 2006 war continues to shake Israel's defense establishment. Upward of 1,000 Lebanese were killed in the fighting, according to tallies by the Lebanese government, humanitarian groups and The Associated Press. In all, 159 Israelis were killed. The war ended in a stalemate and is largely viewed in Israel as a defeat.

The Trophy is the latest in a series of new systems. State-owned Israel Military Industries is producing "Iron Fist," an anti-missile defense that is expected to be installed on Israeli armored personnel carriers next year.

That system takes a different approach from Trophy, first using jamming technology that can make the missile veer off course, and if that fails, creating a "shock wave" to blow it up, said Eyal Ben-Haim, vice president of the company's land-system division.

State-run Rafael is also developing "Iron Dome," which can shoot down the short-range Katyusha rockets that rained down on Israel in 2006, as well as Hamas rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Iron Dome is expected to be deployed by this summer near Gaza.

The Israeli air force recently unveiled a squadron of unmanned airplanes capable of reaching Iran, the key backer of Hezbollah and Hamas militants.

Rafael has also developed an unmanned naval boat called the Protector, which it says is already prowling the waters off the Gaza coast. The Israeli navy confirmed the Protector is being tested, but gave no further details.