Saturday, 3 December 2011

How To Buy a Christmas Tree

It's time to get a Christmas tree! The family and I are headed to the woods tomorrow to pick out this year's tree. Well, actually, we're headed to the Christmas tree farm, but we will cut the tree ourselves and haul it home for decorating. If you like having a live tree and live near a tree farm (or have your own patch of woods,) I highly recommend the freshly cut tree.

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It's a little harder to gauge freshness when you buy a tree from a tree lot, but it's not impossible. To get a better understanding of what to ask when buying a Christmas tree, I talked to Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc. Here are Woroch's tips on buying a live Christmas tree:

1. Ask where it came from. Some Christmas tree lots buy trucked-in trees before Thanksgiving, meaning they'll drop needles faster than airlines can raise their baggage fees. Weeks may have passed since those trees were originally cut, so always ask the vendor where and when they buy their trees.

2. Check for freshness. Is the tree green and healthy with a fragrant scent and moist, flexible needles? Does it have damaged bark or broken branches? When you bounce it lightly on the ground, does it shower you with needles?

3. Weigh it. A heavy tree — proportionate to its size — means it contains a higher water content, and is therefore fresh.

4. Buy locally grown. Is there an area farm that sells freshly cut trees? You'll still want to give them the bounce test, but just the fact they were cut on-site means the trees are fresher. Enter your ZIP code under "Find My Tree Now" on the National Christmas Tree Association's website to find your nearest provider.

5. Cut your own. It takes some effort and a good axe or saw, but there's a great deal of satisfaction in harvesting your own tree — from an approved location, of course. Finding just the right tree and tackling the job as part of a team also makes for a fun outing.

6. Buy online. You can buy anything online these days, even local trees. Companies like Christmas Trees Galore offer free shipping and you won't have to cart the tree home on top of your car. Check for delivery deals and while you're there, find free shipping offers on ornaments and other decorations.

7. Treat it tenderly. Keep the tree outside in a shaded, cool place for a couple days, preferably standing in water. Before bringing it indoors, cut half an inch or so off the butt end to open up its pores, much as you would with cut roses. Once inside, remember to keep the tree stand topped up with water each day. For more information about caring for your live tree, check out The Ohio University's Extension Fact Sheet.

How to Hack Back Your Phone

The findings of a Connecticut-based systems administrator have sparked alarm in millions of smartphone users, after security researcher Trevor Eckhart published a video showing how a cellphone software company has the ability to log users’ Web searches and keystrokes.

The technology, made by Carrier IQ, is currently deployed on more than 150 million devices worldwide.

Research In Motion and HTC — the maker of the phone targeted in the security demo — have issued statements denying that Carrier IQ is preinstalled on their devices. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has sent a letter to Carrier IQ seeking more information on what the software does.

Carrier IQ has told AllThingsD that while its software has the ability to receive a tremendous amount of information, some of which could be relayed to a carrier for diagnostics purposes, the company doesn’t log keystrokes and the software is not being used to gather intelligence about the phone’s user.

But while we wait for more answers, what’s a smartphone user to do?

Google Android Phones: If you’re wondering whether your Google Android phone might have Carrier IQ installed on it, Eckhart, the researcher behind all of this, points people to a Logging Test app that he claims can be used to verify “what logging is being done on your phone and where the data is going to.” If successfully installed — which we hear may take some finagling, including emailing the app link to yourself to access it, and “rooting” your phone first — the $1 app is meant to detect Carrier IQ and remove it.

According to his blog post, Eckhart has tested this app on the HTC Evo 3D phone; he believes it works on the Sprint Evo 4G and HTC Thunderbolt, as well.

But since the Google Android operating system runs on devices from multiple manufacturers, it is not known at this point which models could be running Carrier IQ and which ones are not.

It should be noted that some manufacturers have denied responsibility for the app; HTC, for example, has put the blame on wireless carriers, and basically advises HTC phone owners to contact their carriers. The company did add it was looking into an option for allowing its customers to opt out of the Carrier IQ application, but no further details were given beyond that.

Sprint has not yet responded to my inquiry as to whether the wireless company was actively involved in the installation of Carrier IQ, or how users might disable such applications on Sprint. AT&T said it uses Carrier IQ solely to improve its network performance; Verizon claims not to use it at all, although my colleague John Paczkowski reports that may not be the case.

RIM BlackBerrys: While RIM hasn’t explicitly pointed to wireless carriers as HTC did, the BlackBerry maker also denies any involvement with Carrier IQ, stating “RIM does not pre-install the CarrierIQ app on BlackBerry smartphones or authorize its carrier partners to install the CarrierIQ app before sales or distribution.”

However, the next part of RIM’s statement on the BlackBerry developers forum indicates that it’s possible Carrier IQ could live on a BlackBerry device.

According to BlackBerry Development Advisor Mark Sohm: “If the Carrier IQ application is present on a BlackBerry smartphone, it does not mean that the Carrier IQ application has ‘hacked’ the BlackBerry platform. It means that either the BlackBerry smartphone user or the user’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server admin explicitly installed the application and authorized it to run.”

In other words, if it’s on your phone, you may have granted it access in some way, shape, form or click of your Qwerty keypad.

Apple iPhones: Apple has issued a statement to AllThingsD declaring that the company stopped supporting Carrier IQ with iOS 5, its latest version of mobile software, and plans to remove it from future mobile software updates, too.

But what if you’re running an earlier version of iOS on your iPhone and are worried about where your data is going? Apparently, you can opt out of having your usage data submitted for diagnostics. To do that, go to to Settings → General → About → Diagnostics & Usage. Select “Don’t Send.”

How Yo Make a Profit In Politics

How many stockbrokers can boast about a trade that brought in more than 200 times their investment over the past six weeks? Political pundits could, if they had the foresight to "invest" in GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich's prospects back in October.

The Iowa Electronic Markets make it possible to do such a deal: The IEM operation, sponsored by the University of Iowa's Tippie School of Business as a economic research project, is the only market in the country that has the tacit blessing of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to let traders lay real money down on political predictions. In other contexts, this might be known as a "bet."

Here's how it works: You can buy up to $500 worth of shares in a political proposition — for example, the proposition that Gingrich will finish either No. 1 or No. 2 in January's Iowa GOP presidential caucus. If the proposition pays off, you'll be paid $1 for each share. If it doesn't, the shares are worthless. Thus, the share price on a given day should reflect the traders' assessment that the prediction will come true.

Researchers have reviewed the IEM's record since the Bush-Dukakis faceoff of 1988 and report that political prediction markets are at least as accurate as traditional political polling. During the 2008 presidential campaign, traders leaned toward a Democratic win more than a year before the actual election. Not much changed in the market after that year's party conventions.

Gingrich, however, has experienced a huge shift in fortunes over the past six weeks, on the political circuit and on the IEM: His Iowa caucus shares were trading at just 0.3 cents on Oct. 13, but on Tuesday they reached 69.1 cents. (Ron Paul has just edged ahead of Mitt Romney as the runner-up.)

"Gingrich is soaring," University of Iowa spokesman Tom Snee told me today. "He's actually gone up from yesterday. Today he's at 75 cents a share."

That means every dollar invested in Gingrich in mid-October would yield $250 today.

Now, before your head starts swimming at the prospect of making tens of thousands of dollars in the political game, here's a reality check: There's a limit to how much you can invest in an IEM proposition, and it's not just the $500 account limit.

"You can only buy something if it's available for sale, and we're not going to have 166,000 shares for sale," Snee said. Right now, there's only about $5,000 total invested in the Iowa caucus market. The entire value of investments in all of the IEM's markets is about $185,000, held by about 1,200 traders. You couldn't possibly have spent the whole $500 buying up Gingrich shares at 0.3 cents per share.

Here's how Iowa professor Joyce Berg, director of the IEM, explained the issue in an email passed along by Snee:

"All IEM contracts in the RCONV [Republican Convention] market are issued by selling bundles (one of each contract in the market) for $1. Because exactly one of the contracts will pay off, the IEM has exchanged $1 for something that will be worth $1. In your example, for a trader to spend $500 on contracts selling at $0.003, there would need to be $500/.003 = 166,667 Gingrich contracts available. The only way that could happen is if other traders had spent $166,667 purchasing bundles. The funds to trade the hypothetical trader’s gains come from other traders. That is, for every gain, there is an equal loss in the market.

"In other markets where traders can sell short, there are banks that guarantee the trades. In the IEM, we don’t have that issue due to the way we use bundles to create contacts."

So if you were hoping to use your political acumen to pay for a condo, the IEM can't help you. But there are some potential bargains out there. Heck, just a couple of weeks ago, Herman Cain's Iowa caucus shares were trading at more than 25 cents each. Now they're worth a penny. If you have a hunch that Cain can revive his fortunes, there's money to be made. How's that for an economic plan?

Friday, 2 December 2011

How to Diffuse The Pensions Timebomb

Plans to increase scheme retirement ages and member contribution levels, coupled with changes in how pension income is calculated and increased in retirement, have caused outcry amongst those affected and their respective trade unions.

In his Autumn Statement this week, Chancellor George Osborne announced that the state pension age will increase to 67 by 2026, eight years earlier than planned and commentators expect the further increase to age 68, scheduled for 2046, to be brought forward by a similar term.

What has driven the government to take such measures? The answer lies in demographic changes since World War 2. An ageing population which, thanks to medical advances, is living longer, has created a pensions time bomb which left unchecked, could prove to be a disastrous financial burden on the state and ultimately, the taxpayer.

When the state pension was introduced in 1908, it was means-tested and only available to those aged 70 or over, with no criminal record and of proven sobriety. Life expectancy meant that the duration of state pension payments was measured in months and years rather than decades, as it is now. Funding came from the national insurance contributions paid by a labour force which outnumbered pensioners by a ratio of 9 to 1. Nowadays, that ratio is nearer 2 to 1.

Increased life expectancy may be good news for the individual, but not for pension provision. In 2001, a 65-year-old male in Northern Ireland could expect to live a further 15.7 years. Today that figure has risen to 17.4 years, meaning that the state pension, private pensions and workplace pensions have experienced an increase in costs of 10% in only 10 years simply to maintain the same level of income. Newborns now have a 33% chance of living to 100 years old and government estimates in April indicated that 11m people living in the UK today will reach the age of 100.

Simply put, the sums do not add up. The cost of providing every £1,000pa of state or public sector pension has risen from £8,000 in the 1990s to nearer £40,000 today. These are funded by taxes and national insurance contributions, which may have reduced since the credit crunch but were insufficient before then. The government is faced with a stark choice - to adjust the state and public sector benefits, including contributions levels paid by members or to pass the increasing burden to the taxpayer in the form of higher taxes and national insurance contribution rates.

We may have to accept working longer, paying more into our pension arrangements and possibly having to settle for less, when compared to where we are now. But it does not have to be this way. Most people simply do not save enough for retirement. Many have no pension provision whatsoever and wrongly assume that paying the bare minimum will generate sufficient retirement income or failing that, the state will provide. It won't! The answer, whether we like it or not, is to save more and start as soon as possible for the retirement we desire and just maybe, we can diffuse the pension time bomb!

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