Monthly Archives: December 2012

Booze, Not Weed Is Bad For Your Brain

Alcohol can damage your brain.Some new science demonstrates that marijuana may not have the harmful effects critics claim. In fact, while pot had no measured impact in a new study, the very legal and very lucratively-marketed substance alcohol actually has a worse health impact on young users.

Specifically, a new study of substance-using teenagers’ brains shows that the regular use of alcohol had a harmful effect on the boozing group, while the toking-up group’s brains suffered little alteration.

The researchers, from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, performed the study on 92 16- to 20-year-olds. The scientists scanned their brains both before and after an 18-month period. Over the course of the 18 months, half of the teens, who already had an extensive track record with alcohol and marijuana, continued their vices as they had before. The other half continued to abstain or drink a minimal amount, like they too had done before the study.

In addition to the brain scans, the study also required a detailed toxicology report and substance use assessment. The teens also were interviewed every six months. Researchers did not check the teens’ cognitive ability, but simply took brain scans.

The researchers found that, after the year and a half was over, kids who had drank five or more alcoholic beverages twice a week had lost white brain matter. That means that they could have impaired memory, attention, and decision-making into adulthood. The teens that smoked marijuana on a regular basis had no such reduction.

While other studies have had less clear results, this study is important for a few reasons.

First, it shows that early alcohol abuse can be dangerous because it damages the tissues that influence judgement and self-control. ”If teens decrease their tissue health and cognitive ability to inhibit themselves, they might become more likely to engage in risky behavior like excessive substance use, according to study co-author Joanna Jacobus, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego.

The study authors also said that marijuana strains vary widely, so it’s harder to determine which if any ingredients in a typical joint have positive or negative effects.

The study will be published in the journal  Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Weak Holiday Retail Sales, Lowest Since 2008

U.S. holiday retail sales this year grew at the weakest pace since 2008, when the nation was in a deep recession. In 2012, the shopping season was disrupted by bad weather and consumers’ rising uncertainty about the economy.

A report that tracks spending on popular holiday goods, the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, said Tuesday that sales in the two months before Christmas increased 0.7 percent, compared with last year. Many analysts had expected holiday sales to grow 3 to 4 percent.

In 2008, sales declined by between 2 percent and 4 percent as the financial crisis that crested that fall dragged the economy into recession. Last year, by contrast, retail sales in November and December rose between 4 percent and 5 percent, according to ShopperTrak, a separate market research firm. A 4 percent increase is considered a healthy season.

Shoppers were buffeted this year by a string of events that made them less likely to spend: Superstorm Sandy and other bad weather, the distraction of the presidential election and grief about the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn. The numbers also show how Washington’s current budget impasse is trickling down to Main Street and unsettling consumers. If Americans remain reluctant to spend, analysts say, economic growth could falter next year.

In the end, even steep last-minute discounts weren’t enough to get people into stores, said Marshal Cohen, chief research analyst at the market research firm NPD Inc.

“A lot of the Christmas spirit was left behind way back in Black Friday weekend,” Cohen said, referring to the traditional retail rush the day after Thanksgiving. “We had one reason after another for consumers to say, ‘I’m going to stick to my list and not go beyond it.'”

Holiday sales are a crucial indicator of the economy’s strength. November and December account for up to 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers. If those sales don’t materialize, stores are forced to offer steeper discounts. That’s a boon for shoppers, but it cuts into stores’ profits.

Last-minute shoppers like Kris Betzold, of Carmel, Ind., embraced discounts that were available before Christmas.

“We went out yesterday, and I noticed that the sales were even better now than they were at Thanksgiving,” said Betzold Monday while shopping at an upscale mall in Indianapolis. Betzold, who said the sluggish economy prompted her and her husband to be more frugal this year, noted that she saved about $25 on a Kindle Fire she found at Best Buy.

Spending by consumers accounts for 70 percent of overall economic activity, so the eight-week period encompassed by the SpendingPulse data is seen as a critical time not just for retailers but for manufacturers, wholesalers and companies at every other point along the supply chain.

The SpendingPulse data include sales by retailers in key holiday spending categories such as electronics, clothing, jewelry, luxury goods, furniture and other home goods between Oct. 28 and Dec. 24. They include sales across all payment methods, including cards, cash and checks.

It’s the first major snapshot of retail sales during the holiday season through Christmas Eve. A clearer picture will emerge next week as retailers like Macy’s and Target report revenue from stores open for at least a year. That sales measure is widely watched in the retail industry because it excludes revenue from stores that recently opened or closed, which can be volatile.

Despite the weak numbers out Tuesday, retailers still have some time to make up lost ground. The final week of December accounts for about 15 percent of the month’s sales, said Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. As stores offer steeper discounts to clear some of their unsold inventory, they may be able to soften some of the grim results reflected in Tuesday’s data.

Still, this season’s weak sales could have repercussions for 2013, he said. Retailers will make fewer orders to restock their shelves, and discounts will hurt their profitability. Wholesalers, in turn, will buy fewer goods, and orders to factories for consumer goods will likely drop in the coming months.

In the run-up to Christmas, analysts blamed the weather and worries about the “fiscal cliff” for putting a damper on shopping. Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states in late October. Many in the New York region were left without power, and people farther inland were buried under feet of snow. According to McNamara, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic account for 24 percent of U.S. retail sales.

Buying picked up in the second half of November as retailers offered more discounts and shoppers waylaid by the storm finally made it into malls, he said.

But as the weather calmed, the threat of the “fiscal cliff” picked up. In December, lawmakers remained unable to reach a deal that would prevent tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect at the beginning of 2013. If the cuts and tax hikes kick in and stay in place for months, many economists expect the nation could fall back into recession.

The news media discussed this possibility more intensely as December wore on, making Americans increasingly aware of the economic troubles they might face if Washington is unable to resolve the impasse. Sales never fully recovered, Cohen said.

The results were weakest in areas affected by Sandy and a more recent winter storm in the Midwest. Sales declined by 3.9 percent in the mid-Atlantic and 1.4 percent in the Northeast compared with last year. They rose 0.9 percent in the north central part of the country.

The West and South posted gains of between 2 percent and 3 percent, still weaker than the 3 percent to 4 percent increases expected by many retail analysts.

Online sales, typically a bright spot, grew only 8.4 percent from Oct. 28 through Saturday, according to SpendingPulse. That’s a dramatic slowdown from the online sales growth of 15 to 17 percent seen in the prior 18-month period, according to the data service.

Online sales did enjoy a modest boost after the recent snowstorm that hit the Midwest, McNamara said. Online sales make up about 10 percent of total holiday business.

Source AP

Can We Trust The Chinese? History Says No.

One of the downsides of outsourcing manufacturing to China is that you’re a day’s trip away or more from your home USA base just to see what’s going on in the boardroom. The other yet bigger downside is that you’re handing your technology to a country known for stealing intellectual property.

The PC industry has been through this before. It was only a decade ago that US firms such as Gateway, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard were dominant players in PCs, now they’ve since been replaced by Chinese firms Lenovo and Asus. These competitors now dominating the industry were built from outsourcing to China since we gave them the knowledge and technology on a silver platter to knock-off.

Samsung is the latest example of this since it builds many of the key components for the iPhone and iPad. Therefore, its no coincidence that Samsung is able to build similar quality products that are now Apple’s competition. Now, word is that China based Foxconn is building a smartphone for Amazon.

I think Apple sees the writing on the wall although it may be too late for Apple to begin moving production to the U.S. to avoid what awaits them in about five years from all the technology they exported to a den of thieves known as The People’s Republic Of China.

Gun Prices Surging – Its Guns Gone Wild

President Barack Obama endorsing sweeping gun restrictions in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, prices for handgun magazines are surging on EBay (EBAY) and semi-automatic rifles are sold out at many Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) locations.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, said yesterday that it would continue to sell guns, including rifles like the one used at Newtown, where 26 people, most of them children, were killed on Dec. 14. By contrast, Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. (DKS)suspended sales of similar guns at its more than 500 stores.

Searches of five kinds of semi-automatic rifles on Wal- Mart’s website showed them to be out of stock at stores in five states, including Pennsylvania, Kansas and Alabama. Wal-Mart doesn’t sell guns online, instead asking customers to input a zip code to see if their local store carries a specific weapon.

“We remain dedicated to the safe and responsible sale of firearms in areas of the country where they are sold,” David Tovar, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said yesterday. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

Wal-Mart has about 10 modern sporting rifles, the gun industry’s term for firearms that look like an M-16 military rifle, listed on its website. The retailer removed a description and picture of the Bushmaster AR-15, which was the model used in Newtown, after the shootings.

Assault Rife Sold In Walmary As A Sporting Rifle

In 2006, Wal-Mart reduced the number and variety of guns it offered in stores, and replaced them with more upscale products such as exercise equipment. It then reintroduced firearms to many stores in April 2011 as part of strategy to add merchandise back to shelves and revive sales growth at its Wal-Mart locations in the U.S.

Gun Revenue

The move may have helped as U.S. Wal-Mart stores posted their first gain in same-store sales in more than two years in October 2011. Wal-Mart doesn’t disclose how many guns it sells, though at an analysts’ meeting in October it said gun revenue gained 76 percent in the first half of this fiscal year. The chain advertised a Sig Sauer M400 as one of its Black Friday doorbusters last month, offering the rifle for $50 off at $867.

Cabela’s Inc., an outdoor retailer that also sells guns, didn’t return several calls seeking comment on whether it planned to change its firearm policies. Hunting equipment, which includes firearms, made up 41 percent of Cabela’s sales in 2011, according to a company filing. The retailer doesn’t provide sales data for just guns.

Prices Tripling

On EBay Inc.’s auction website, shoppers have recently bid up gun magazines. The current bid for four Glock handgun magazines, ammunition for one of the guns used at Newtown, is $118.37 compared with $45 on the day before the shooting. The bid for seven Glock magazines hit $201 on Dec. 17 from $71.01 before the massacre.

Gun buyers have flooded other firearms retailers too. The Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, racked up more than $1 million in sales yesterday for the best single-day performance since the store opened in 1959, according to Justin Anderson, director of online sales. At the top of shoppers’ lists was the Bushmaster AR-15, the model of rifle used at Newtown that sells for as much as $4,000 and had almost sold out, he said.

Revenue at one of the largest U.S. gun stores surpassed even the spike just after Obama was elected president in 2008, Anderson said in a telephone interview. Sales weren’t as robust when Obama was re-elected last month because the president hadn’t backed major new gun laws, he said.

Concrete Proposals

Today, Obama said his administration would come up with “concrete proposals” by next month to curb gun violence.

Speculation over stricter gun laws will continue to boost sales, Anderson said yesterday.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm for the gun industry,” he said. “When these things happen, even though it’s sad, it does pick up sales.”

Wal-Mart has received some pressure to curb gun sales in the past. That continued this week when Lauren Buglino, a fourth-grade teacher from the Bronx, created an online petition on exhorting the retailer to stop selling rifles like the one used at Newtown. It had more than 57,000 supporters today.

Wal-Mart entered into an agreement in 2008 with the Mayors Against Illegal Guns that included video recording of purchases and the use of databases to identify people who have bought guns recovered in crimes.

When Wal-Mart added guns to stores in 2011, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston criticized it for trying to increase the number of guns on the streets, according to the Boston Herald.

Source Bloomberg

Computers Will Eventually Taste, Touch, Smell And More

Some day in the not too distant future, you’ll be able to order a wedding dress on your tablet and feel the fabric and the veil just by touching the screen.

When you feel an object, your brain registers the series of vibrations on your skin as being smooth, rough, sharp, etc. Computer sensors are becoming sophisticated enough to do that too.

Within the next five years, vibrators within smartphones will be precise enough that they could be designed to mimic the vibrations experienced when your fingers touch a particular surface. Even though you’ll just be touching glass, it will feel like you’re touching whatever object is displayed on the screen.

“We’re not talking about fuzzy screens,” said Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s vice president of innovation. “You’re not going to have to dry clean your Samsung.”

In some ways, computers are already simulating touch — albeit in a crude form. When you’re driving a car in a video game, the controller vibrates when the car starts to veer off the road. It may not feel precisely like a steering wheel’s vibrations when you hit gravel, but within five years, that technology is expected to become even more lifelike.

IBM’s researchers are working on just that — creating applications for the retail and healthcare sectors that use haptic, infrared or pressure-sensitive technologies to simulate touch.

Today’s computers are very good at capturing and displaying images, but despite advances in image recognition software, computers are still pretty lousy at understanding what they’re “looking” at. Humans are still needed to tag friends, label photos and identify diseases.

In five years, all that will change, IBM says. Computers will be able to interpret images better than we can, analyzing colors, texture patterns and gaining insights from other visual media. They will even surpass doctors’ abilities to read medical imagery, including MRIs, CT scans, X-Rays and ultrasounds.

Computers of the not-too-distant future will be able to see subtleties in images that can be invisible to the human eye. For instance, computers will be able to quickly differentiate healthy from diseased tissue on an MRI and cross-reference the image with a patient’s medical history and scientific literature to make a diagnosis.

Imagine holding a smartphone up to your infant when she’s making a sound, and the app displaying a message: “I’m hungry.” That’s not as far-off as you might think.

In five years, computers will be able to detect elements of sounds that humans can hear but aren’t able to understand. As every parent knows, the difference between normal babbling and a message that something is wrong can be extremely subtle. Computers of the near-future will not only be able to detect whether a baby is upset, they’ll be able to determine if the child is hungry, tired, hot or in pain.

By interpreting different sound pressures, vibrations and waves, computers will be able to predict when trees are about to fall, when landslides are imminent, or when cars are about to collide before humans can.

Computers are already starting to do this: In Galway Bay, Ireland, IBM researchers are capturing underwater noise levels to understand the impact that different sounds have on sea life.

Within the next five years, a computer will help you make the perfect recipe — not too sweet, not too salty, not too crunchy, but just the way you like it.

By breaking down foods to the molecular level, computers will be able to use complex algorithms to determine what flavor combinations are the most appealing. They could then develop recipes that provide the ideal flavor and texture of food. Think of it as the Watson of Top Chef.

The technology could be used to help people eat better, IBM says. By making healthy foods taste better, people might crave vegetable dishes instead of sugary and fatty junk foods.

Though computers aren’t quite there yet, they are “tasting” things today. Specially designed microchips are being used in chemical and power plants to sense biohazards in the air. IBM researchers are working to adapt that technology to analyze the chemical structures in food.

Do you think you’re coming down with a cold? In five years, you’ll be able to breathe into your smartphone to find out.

IBM researchers are developing technology to analyze odors in people’s breath that identify ailments, including liver and kidney disorders, asthma, diabetes and epilepsy. By determining which odors and molecules in a person’s breath are associated with each disease, computers of the future will be able to make an instant analysis for problems that today could be misdiagnosed or go undetected by a doctor.

Computers will also be able to detect harmful bacteria that cause Staph infections in hospitals just by smelling the surroundings.

In a more rudimentary form, computers are smelling things now: Agricultural sensors smell soil to determine crop conditions, sensors in museums determine which gas levels are ideal to preserve paintings, and city sanitation departments use computers that can smell garbage and pollution to alert workers when conditions are getting dangerous.

Software To Up-Sample Images

One vital fact to keep in mind regarding software to increase image size is they function more effectively when the original is of “borderline acceptable quality” to begin with.  This is fact when using software from firms like Alien Skin or the image resizing filters of my program UltraSeps which is engineered for t-shirt screen printing.

Many seem to think these software packages can take a miniscule 3″, 72 dpi graphic lifted from a website to generate a pristine 15″ 300 dpi image, ready for print production when that’s simply not the case. I run into this everyday and need to explain the dynamics of up-sampling to end-users.

Lets use a sign printer as an example, he’s probably using it up-sample images for large format printing. I would imagine his originals aren’t small website graphics and are probably somewhat acceptable as a full size t-shirt graphic for example (12″x12″ at 300 dpi) when factoring in physical dimension and resolution. Therefore, when up-sizing for large format such as a vehicle wrap, they work since this type of output is at lower resolution, well below 300 dpi as its viewed from a distance.

Although this won’t sound incredibly scientific — up-sampling, re-sizing, whatever works well “at times” and some files are more forgiving than others. Its not an exact science.

Note:  The up-sampling filters included with my product UltraSeps is engineered for t-shirt graphics and is not intended for print production such as commercial magazine printing.

Is There A Downside To Technology?

I originally wrote this piece for another blog I published during 2010.

Lately within an economy that remains somewhat weak with challenged employment, most publicly traded companies have reported solid earnings and have guided profit forecasts somewhat higher, especially the technology sector. This phenomena is out of sync with what’s occurring on main street and on a global basis.

Its not as though the consumer is banging down the doors to spend, is it? Businesses aren’t suddenly bleeding their wallets to increase capital expenditures, are they? Could it be banks lending again with reckless abandon? No, I think not. Is it possible that technology is getting to the level where enterprises can do more with fewer warm bodies collecting a paycheck thus boosting their bottom line?  Yes…could be!

Although not an absolute, it is having an impact and is never discussed or even pondered within mainstream media. Face facts, where we once had an army of welders at an automobile plant, we now have several fast robots. At offices that once required a team of clerks and assistants, we now have wicked computers doing all that filing, sorting, billing and such. Oh, did I forget to account for a massive decline in domestic manufacturing? Let’s not discard that little tidbit. I could go on and on but I think you get the drift.

Mind boggling advances in technology have been taking place while the population of the USA has exploded over the past 30 years from 225 million to 305 million and these numbers don’t account for the millions of people in the country illegally. So it stands to reason that if technology is allowing many tasks to be completed with 10 people that once required 50, and all during the time population has increased and manufacturing has decreased, we’ll eventually get to the point where jobs, (at least worthwhile employment) can prove difficult to secure. Yes, a theory albeit a good one.

The next 10 years will be interesting unless we can all figure out a way to make a living texting one another, updating our Facebook account and posting to Twitter.