Saturday, 17 December 2011

How To Create a Holiday Video Card

While holiday photo cards are a nice way to celebrate the season, they are not without their drawbacks. First of all, you have to decide what photo to use. The whole turtlenecked family gathered around the fireplace? Just the kids wearing festive hats? Some kind of Wes Anderson parody, perhaps? Families have been ripped apart by less important decisions. Next, printing holiday photo cards can cost a bundle, and you still need money to blow on rad gifts for your nearest and dearest. Finally, everyone is doing holiday photo cards these days, and this is your chance to stand out from the cliched masses. So why not create a holiday video card? It's a free, totally DIY way to celebrate the season - and it might just bring your family closer together.

Sound good? Read on for a few tips on how to make a holiday video card that will knock your loved ones' snowflake sweaters right off.

Plan your shoot

Before you start rolling, get the family together to brainstorm. This is the part where you decide what the video card will be about. You might act out a scene from a holiday movie, throw a winter dance party, or capture the family decorating the house (or each other). Remember, the more involved everyone is from the beginning, the more they'll contribute throughout the shoot.

Get the basics right

Make sure you have enough light and think of how you'll frame your shots. Your video will be less mirthful and joyous if it's too dark to see what's happening, or if you cut off grandma's head.

Three legs are better than two

It's not a family video if the whole family isn't in it, so if you have a tripod, break it out. Not only will it allow whoever is behind the camera to join the fun in front, it will result in steady shots and make you look like a complete pro.

Tis the season to be tuneful

What's a holiday video card without holiday music? Boring, that's what.

The gift that keeps on giving

When you're done putting the final edits on your holiday video card, simply upload it to a video-sharing site and let other people know about it via email, Facebook, Twitter, passenger pigeon or semaphore. You can protect your video with a password so only special people can see it, or create a private group so others in your family can share their holiday video cards.

The days of stuffing envelopes and running to the post office for another book of stamps are over! Now all you have to do is fire up the computer and watch the emoticons of appreciation roll in!

Family holiday video cards are easy to put together, and for additional tips and lessons, head over to the Video Vimeo School at

Friday, 16 December 2011

How To Stop Taking Things So Personally

Consider this scenario: you are walking outside and you notice dark clouds forming above you. Unfortunately, you have no umbrella. This is a shame because you're wearing a brand new outfit and you'd hate to get it wet.

You try to run for shelter but it's too late - a downpour has made you soaking wet. Now you'll be drenched all day until you can get home and change your clothes. How unlucky you are! You were just minding your own business and suddenly you got caught in the rain. If only you had the protection of your umbrella!

As we live our daily lives, it may seem like we have no control over how we feel. Indeed, we are just as vulnerable to the words and actions of others as we are to a rainstorm. Even if we are in a great mood, all it takes is one comment about our weight or a careless driver cutting us off and suddenly, we are soaking wet.

But what if we had our umbrella? What can protect us from the discourteous, thoughtless remarks and actions of others? According to bestselling author Don Miguel Ruiz, the answer is simple: don't take anything personally.

In "The Four Agreements," Ruiz offers simple, yet profound words of wisdom. The actions of other people do not need to have any negative effect on you.

If you take things personally, you make yourself a victim of anything that others say or do. This is like riding bumper cars and feeling outraged that others are colliding into you! Some may hit you because they are being careless or they have no control over their car. Others may crash into you deliberately. It would be quite silly to feel upset about this because we know that when we ride bumper cars, we are going to get hit.

Likewise, in our lives, we will inevitably be struck by the criticisms and oversights of others. Will you be disturbed and flustered by what other people do? Realize that it makes no sense to give people such power over you.

If you decide to no longer take things personally, you will avoid a tremendous amount of suffering. Even if someone directly antagonizes you, there is no need to be bothered because that person is certainly struggling with his or her own problems. Moreover, these problems have nothing to do with you. You can choose to become involved with the trouble of someone else or you can rise above it, confidently and peacefully walking away.

Why is it so easy to take offense to the behavior of others? Do we actually believe that everything is always about us? In fact, research does suggest that we overestimate how much we may be singled out and judged by others.

Frankly, it's irrational and self-absorbed to live this way. Moreover, it causes so much needless suffering. An inconsiderate date or the spiteful remarks of your co-worker reflect a fault in him or her, not in you. This fault does not need to suddenly become your problem, too.

It takes practice and patience to stop taking things personally. After all, it's natural to feel upset if a family member belittles your career choice or if a stranger bumps into you without an apology. Indeed, we've spent a lifetime reacting to the actions of others, and old habits die hard. However, if we make the courageous decision to no longer emotionally react to the whims of others, our lives will be completely transformed.

To start, focus on one person that normally flusters you. Try to see the world from her or his perspective. Does this perspective focus mostly on you? In truth, it doesn't. Human beings are primarily concerned with themselves, not with other people. Ideally, people would be more considerate of your feelings, but this will not always happen. Therefore, when this person says or does something that normally upsets you, remember that they are living through their own point of view, just like you are.

If this point of view results in a hurtful comment, it's nothing personal, because this person wasn't thinking about you in the first place!

There is tremendous emotional freedom when you don't take things personally. You'll find that there is hardly anything that can make you really upset. You can still maintain high standards for how people treat you and how you treat others, but how you feel will be under your control. Indeed, when the rain falls, you don't have to get drenched - your umbrella will be ready whenever you need it.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

How To Build Your Own App For Free

Conduit offers a simple tool to build your own app. (Credit: Conduit)

Ever want to build an app for yourself?

It's actually not hard. There are a number of companies that offer the ability to create your own app for a minimal fee, which is great for small businesses looking to stay relevant in this increasingly mobile world. Or if you just have a lot of time on your hands.

Take Conduit. The company made its money creating branded toolbars found on your browser. But over the past few months, it has been expanding into the mobile world with a free service that allows you to build an app and mobile Web site in minutes. It's part of a planned shift by the company to build its consumer awareness after spending years serving other businesses in a white label capacity.

"We're trying to give companies a tool to really go mobile," said Ori Lavie, vice president of product strategy at Conduit Mobile. "It's sometimes a difficult struggle."

You can select how many categories, or tabs, you want on your app. (Credit: Conduit)

I've tried the service, and it's pretty simple to use. The best part: it's completely free. Conduit has a team set up that will take you through the submission process and it will even pay your fee to get the app up in the various mobile app stores. As with everything in life, there are some catches, and Conduit's offer is a limited-time promotion.

For the purposes of testing, I decided to build a mobile application out of my personal Tumblr blog, Annoying PR. Conduit's browser-based tool allowed me to select from a set template for how the app would look--including different appearances for each platform.

To add content to the app, I typed in the address for my blog, which drew in the feed. I also added my Twitter and Facebook accounts.

In terms of the look, I was able to change up the color scheme. I also chose a background, splash page, screenshots, and a logo for the app. You can pick images from a provided library of upload your own images.

There's also an option to run mobile ads on the app, in which Conduit and the customer would split any potential revenue. I opted not to run ads on my app.

Potentially get your app on multiple devices. (Credit: Conduit)

The tool worked very much like Wordpress, Tumblr, or any other Web site or blog creation service, and is fairly intuitive.

Within minutes I had an HTML5 mobile Web site built. The site worked a lot like an app, especially after I chose to put it on my iPhone's home screen. The address, which uses a Conduit-hosted URL, isn't exactly the catchiest.

(Point your mobile browser here to check out the HTML5 site.)

Of course, I care more about getting it into app form, which is where there are complications. Yes, Conduit will offer to take your app through the submission process--all while covering your fees--but only after its compliance team deems the app ready. It can kick back the app if it lacks content or uses copyrighted or offensive material.

Once the app is ready, an option comes up that allows you to take advantage of this promotion.

In my case, the app wasn't ready for primetime. I got a message from a Conduit team member saying my app had insufficient content and suggested I add more categories and images. I added more content from CNET's YouTube page and a contact tab and resubmitted it. I'm hoping for more luck the next time around.

Lavie said the review process by Conduit may take a few days and getting approval from iTunes and Samsung's Bada may take a few weeks. Beyond iOS, Android, and Bada, a separate Nokia app is created as well. It also creates a Web app for Microsoft's Windows Phone and BlackBerry, although the site says native apps were coming soon.

Its simple format means this is a better option for businesses without a lot of technical resources to pursue their own app. Large companies and major brands with money behind them are better off building an app from scratch, since it'll likely be able to take more advantage of the device. There's a reason why major companies are pouring money into building apps--they want to be a permanent fixture on a device you stare at dozens of times a day.

It's not just businesses; ambitious individuals are also getting into the app game. Lavie said opera singer Andrea Bocelli will have a personal app up through Conduit, as well as two NFL players who haven't launched their programs yet. He added he expects bands and DJs to be interested in the capability.

It doesn't have to be small business or celebrities. Conduit's offer removes any barriers and complications, meaning anyone with something meaningful to share could conceivably build an app. So this is my challenge to readers: use Conduit to build your own app. If I get enough responses, I'll highlight them in an upcoming Inside Apps column.

How To Manage Your Stress During The Christmas Rush

I’m trying to beat my column deadline. Unbelievable schedule of rushing from work, and playing reindeer delivering gifts, down to the traditional get-togethers — all in the spirit of Christmas. At the rate I’m going, I must say, I’ve done a decent job this year with my Christmas list compared to last year.

And yet, there is no way that I can attend all the Christmas parties with the Christmas rush. MMDA’s Christmas lanes have done little to augment the traffic situation in Edsa. But, that’s Christmas. A stressful Christmas for all of us.

Dr. Marcellus Ramirez, former chair of the Philippine Heart Association Council on Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, warns against the increase incidence of heart attack and stroke during the Christmas Season, brought about by stress, and the food that we eat and the cold weather. And aside from this, we should be wary of what is called Holiday Heart Syndrome, or the irregular heartbeat after a drinking binge. The heart reacts to the toxic effects of alcohol. The symptoms include dizziness, difficulty in breathing, palpitations. In worse cases, though rarely, it may also lead to sudden death.

I’ve had my fill of buffalo wings, ribs, paella, salmon with cheese and garlic. I was the first to finish our meal, but dessert, who can really resist it? It was more like a buffet dessert: Chocolate cake, sans rival and Mango cake, combined with delectable coffee. Had two cups of brewed coffee, and another cup of cappuccino — a total of three. Had a sip of wine. Good thing I don’t like alcohol.

“Stay away from the buffet table during parties, the farther you are from the table, the better,” says Cardiologist Dr. Willie Ong.

You lose track of how full you are amidst all the conversation. To avoid binging, it’s best that you go to a party with a semi-full stomach, and use smaller plates. Also prepare healthier options on your menu like greens.

It’s best to be healthy now than regret it later.

How to deal with stress. Given that I’ve done a better job this year in managing my Christmas stress. We feel the surge of adrenalin during this season, but there are ways to manage our stress. Here are my few tips:

1. Prepare early. I started my list of To-Dos last October, bought gifts by November, and I should be done by delivering presents next week.

2. If you didn’t do No.1, quit cramming. Let go. You can’t accomplish everything anyway.

3. Delegate or ask for help. Just when I thought I have so many presents to wrap all by myself, came reinforcement: My Grandma, my ninang and sis-in-law. I also plan to hire a driver for a day to help me deliver our gifts if I don’t finish doing it myself. Tip: It’s good to deliver gifts on an early weekend morning, say 7 a.m.? It works for me.

3. Say no. It is very hard not to go to all the invitations, but with the traffic that we have, you really have to choose which ones to go and accept. Quality vs. quantity. I’d rather go to a few parties and be present, than to be in most and fleeting.

4. Stop. Nothing spoils Christmas than rushing all the way. Christmas is in the air, savor the cool wind (ehem, the smog), enjoy the Christmas cheer!

5. Get enough rest. If you have a late-night party to attend, make time to rest during the day. Pace yourself.

I love Christmas... the noche buena, the get-togethers, the reunions... it’s fun, fun, fun. But let this not consume us in what the season truly is about — the birthday of Jesus.

I planned early for Christmas, because I don’t want to miss Him. And if all the stress is consuming you, it’s not worth it. Let go and celebrate Christmas.

How To Answer Your kids Questions About Santa Claus

Watching children enjoy the magic of Christmas is fun, but the little ones sure ask a lot of questions.

“How can Santa Claus fly in a sleigh?” “How does he get in our house if we don’t have a chimney?” “How can he see me when I’m sleeping and when I’m awake?”

The legend of Santa Claus had delighted kids for generations, but let’s face it: The idea of a benevolent toy maker who lives at the frigid North Pole, who keeps himself a secret and enters your home only in the dark of night, and who keeps a semi-permanent record of each child’s goodness and badness raises more questions than it answers.

Tony Rimkus of Springfield, Ill., has heard a lot of those questions. He’s been portraying the jolly old elf for six years at stores.

Rimkus, and several experienced parents in central Illinois, addressed how they answer tough questions from the little ones about jolly old St. Nick. You can use some of these answers to simplify your life during this busy Christmas season.


Rimkus: “I bring a training sleigh with reindeer in training. I go to a friend that has a farm out of town where he puts them up in a barn and feeds them for me. He then lets me borrow his car to get to the store for the visit.”


Rimkus: “I have a special key that lets me in any door.”

Laura Easterley, Springfield: “Santa is always full of magical surprises, and he always finds a way to get the toys where they need to be, and he always goes to all the stores he can and visits with all the children.”


Rimkus: “I only carry the presents for the home I am visiting at that time. When I get back to the sleigh, the presents for the next stop are put in the bag by an elf assistant.”


Rimkus: “Santa is able to be in multiple places at one time. He trains special elves to represent him and can see and hear what the assistant is doing and directs him with the answer to the question. He also hears the list of what you want through the assistant. So, yes, I am the eyes and ears for Santa.”

Easterley: “He has reindeer, helpers, elves and a wonderful wife that always makes sure Santa is taken care of, just the way he takes care of you on Christmas.”


Diane Green, Springfield: “Our answer was that Mom and Dad give Santa money to buy the gifts. We also told the kids when you are born, before you leave the hospital, every mom is given Santa’s email and cell phone number. That way, Santa knows if you are being good or not. Plus, we keep in contact with Santa on the presents we think you should get.”


Tammy Stone, Springfield: “Last year, my daughter asked for a pair of mittens, because her ‘friends have them.’ Santa did not bring mittens.

“I explained to her that because she already has a few pairs of gloves, Santa gave her mittens to a little girl that didn’t have gloves or mittens. While disappointed that she didn’t get hers, she seemed very understanding that some little girl somewhere might not have any.”


Image from

Jeanne Gill, Springfield: “When the children asked about the Santas they saw everywhere, we explained they’re Santa’s special helpers. This way, there’s no disappointment to deal with as they (the children) get to share in this wonderful legend and get their spirit of Christmas each year. And hopefully, it doesn’t stop after Christmas, but develop the spirit of loving thy neighbor all year long and helping them whenever we can.”


Parents, if all else fails and you can’t come up with a good answer, take the advice of Marie Havens of Springfield.

“(The) best response is, ‘What do you think?’ Wish I’d known that when my then 3-year old asked me if Santa was real.”

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

How To Cure Bad Breath

Bad breath is no laughing matter to Americans. The proof is in the estimated two billion dollars a year spent on products to mask that stank.

But the often ignored social repercussions of halitosis -- the fancy term for bad breath -- can be crippling. In one survey, 34 percent of respondents said that bad breath made them hesitant to even speak to other people (another 12.6 percent said they avoided others altogether). Try dating with that kind of pressure.

Even if you don't have severe halitosis (the kind that you smell on someone sometimes before you even see them), what people may not realize is that half of the adult population suffers from persistent bad breath.

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Why do we get bad breath? And most importantly, what can we do to rid ourselves of it? You may be surprised to find that some of the usual go-to solutions may actually be making your breath worse.

What Causes Bad Breath
Germs: We may think smelly foods are often the culprit for bad breath, but in reality, germs that naturally exist in our mouth cause 90 to 95 percent of bad breath. When the germs mix with protein particles, it's bad news.

"Germs plus protein equal bad breath," says Susanne Cohen, D.D.S. "When those germs metabolize, they produce a foul smelling sulfur gas that smells kind of like rotten eggs."

And ever wonder why we get morning breath? One reason is, "When we sleep, we produce less saliva than when we're awake," explains NYC-based dentist, Jennifer Jablow. "Saliva acts as a buffer to neutralize and wash away bacteria. With less of it, our mouth is dry and the acid level rises, leaving bacteria to produce foul smelling gases."

You can even blame those gases for your coffee breath, which doesn't come from the coffee itself. "If you think about it, coffee smells delicious," Dr. Cohen explains. "Think about those commercials where people wake up with a smile just from the smell of coffee brewing! It's actually the sulfur gases [in your mouth] combined with coffee that produces that disgusting odor."

Foods: That said, certain foods do produce a bad odor -- think garlic and onions and other pungent foods. In fact, when garlic's potent-smelling sulfur compounds are metabolized, they form something called methyl sulfide, which can't be digested. Instead, it's passed through the blood stream to your lungs and skin where it's excreted. Yup, your skin will smell like garlic. No one knows why but for some people, this smell can last for days.

Dry mouth: It may not be the most opportune time to talk to the cutie at the gym after your workout. All that huffing and puffing while you exercise dries out your mouth and can actually cause foul breath.

"When your mouth is not moisturized, you can have bad breath," says Dr. Jablow. When you consistently have a dry mouth, it's called xerostomia. The side effects of many drugs such as anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants, and even allergy medicines like antihistamines can also produce dry mouth, and hence, bad breath.

Your Health: People with certain conditions like liver or kidney disease and diabetes tend to have bad breath as well. The build up of wastes in the blood leads to a metallic taste in the mouth that produces the odor. Conditions like acid-reflux (which may be asymptomatic in some people) causes food to regurgitate to the esophagus which mix with bacteria and other enzymes to cause bad breath.

On that point, Dr. Cohen notes that a common myth is that the stomach causes most bad breath. Unless you have a health condition, there actually isn't constant air-flow between your stomach and mouth.

How To Prevent Bad Breath
Contrary to popular belief, your alcohol-laden mouthwash may actually be making your bad breath worse.

"Mouthwashes containing alcohol mask breath for a very short time but [the alcohol] dries out your mouth terribly," says Dr. Jablow.

What's more, The Australian Dental Journal concluded that there is sufficient evidence that mouthwashes with alcohol increase your risk of developing oral cancer, a disease that kills roughly 8,000 Americans every year.

Dr. Cohen adds that those mouthwashes, which claim to kill almost 100 percent of germs, don't tell you that those germs also rapidly repopulate -- within 30 to 60 minutes by most estimates -- causing just as bad "rebound" bad breath. In fact, in 2008, the Better Business Bureau concluded that no mouthwash is allowed to claim fresh breath for more than an hour.

The one exception is SmartMouth, an alcohol-free mouthwash that breaks up the sulfur-producing process and kills germs to prevent bad breath for up to 12 hours, according to their claims.

Dr. Cohen, who is also the CEO and co-founder of Triumph Pharmaceuticals, which makes SmartMouth, says that if you use the rinse in the morning and before bed, "you'll literally wake up with fresh breath."

Mouthwashes like SmartMouth and another dentist favorite, CloSYS, actually get to the root of the problem by eliminating those gases from the get-go and killing germs simultaneously.

Dr. Jablow also recommends clear rinses like Crest Pro-Health Multi-Protection Rinse in Clear Mint over the blue-tinged ones ("I don't like coloration because they can stain the teeth a little bit").

Chewing fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme, and rosemary also helps prevent bad odors after a smelly meal. Besides having a more favorable scent, the chlorophyll in the leaves helps neutralize pungent smells. You can also drink more water to keep your breath moisturized.

Surprisingly, eating cheeses like mozzarella can even prevent bad breath since dairy products help neutralize acidity.

Another bad-breath killer: "One of my favorite ingredients to prevent dry mouth is xylitol," says Dr. Jablow. "It's a sugar substitute found in many gums and dental products that keeps bacteria at bay and helps with saliva flow." Try IntelliWhiTe ProWHiTe toothpaste, or gums from Spry or Vitacare.

And of course, remember basic oral hygiene: Brushing twice a day, flossing and visiting your dentist twice a year to remove plaque build up, all of which helps to remove bacteria from accumulating under your gum line, which causes bad breath.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

How To Associate 'Easy' and 'Effective' and Employee Performance Appraisals

Performance appraisal systems are often ineffective in the original intention. No matter how amazing an employee is, he or she wants to know what a supervisor thinks about the performance.

Two reasons performance appraisals are left undone are because the process is time consuming and conflict is uncomfortable.

Here are some strategies to prepare the employee, write the appraisal and communicate the employee’s performance. All three areas will save time stressing over the appraisal process. Always know your human resources process before doing any performance related discussions. Whatever you do don’t be the supervisor who hasn’t given employee’s reviews for over a year.

Performance Appraisal Preparation

“Everything depends upon execution; having just a vision is no solution.”

— Stephen Sondheim

Appraisal writing

• Notify the employee and request achievements: Let them know you are preparing their performance review and would love to set up a time that works best for them. Ask them to prepare and email a list of accomplishments they would like included in the review.

• First draft: Close the door and reflect on each section and write notes throughout. Wait to write a numerical score until third draft.

• Second draft: Set it aside for a day and then edit/revise. Do you include specific examples of their performance reflected in the number score? Do you include specific examples of improvement you would like to see (if appropriate)?

• Third draft: Set it aside for another day and then edit/revise for the final time for your discussion with the employee. Now is the time to copy and paste the list of achievements the employee emailed.

• Send a meeting reminder: Notify the employee or remind them about the date of the performance review. It can be a great idea to also schedule a third party to attend the review if you have experienced previous miscommunications with the employee.

• Prepare talking points: Review the final appraisal looking for key areas to emphasize (positive and constructive). Where are the good examples? Be prepared to distinguish between the deal breakers or things that must be changed and can result in disciplinary action as opposed to things they can polish for star performance.

Appraisals Include more than Job Functions

• Job functions section: This section allows you to identify three or four major activities they are responsible for in their position. What specific results should they achieve in each of these areas if they are consistently meeting or exceeding expectations? Give examples of indicators or outcomes and examples of the employees consistent performance in each. Be specific.

• Other critical areas: Another section can review the entire picture of high performing employees. Determine if they are consistently performing quality and quantity of work, good interpersonal skills, communication, and promoting a positive work environment.

Develop one or two sentences that demonstrates their abilities. If they are inconsistent, then provide an example when they did well and an example of when they did not meet minimum expectations. Communicate to the employee that the goal is to have consistent performance over the long-term.

• Professional development plan: One of the most common mistakes here is the differing views of this goal. Some supervisors are communicating an area that would be nice if they improved, but not critical. Other supervisors view this as a goal that must be achieved or the employee could be held accountable.

First, be very clear what the positive or negative consequence will be for failure to achieve or accomplish this goal.

Second, this goal should link with initiatives and needs of the organization and/or department.

Third, this is an opportunity to brainstorm the employee’s desire for development and alignment to the department. Employees want to feel they are adding value to the organization.

• Additional comments by reviewer: This is where I copy and paste the achievements submitted by the employee. I add or comment on any as it applies.

Communicating with Employees and Follow up

Effective accountability is so little about reprimands. It is a focus on successful communication. Accountability is not telling people how to do the job. It is defining the successful outcome.

It describes what will and will not have happened, allowing the person to use their strengths and creativity to meet the performance.

• Communication during the review

Open with an overview of the meeting. Involve the employee at the start by asking them what they hope to achieve in the meeting.

Communicate the business need for their performance and their alignment to the team, department and organization. Stop and listen each step of the way. Add their comments along the way to demonstrate great listening. At the end of the meeting, ask them what decisions were made from our discussion. Take notes so you can include them in the follow-up reminder.

• Communication after the review

• Thank you/follow-up: Review your notes about decisions and employee comments.

Compose an email thanking them for a great meeting and a review of the decisions made at the meeting.

If you requested additional information then remind them when it is due in order to include it in the final appraisal.

• Tracking future feedback: Set up a location for tracking positive and constructive feedback to employees

Remember, you should have more positive reinforcement conversations then constructive feedback.

The goal is to set them up for success and the most effective way to do that for adults is positive reinforcement using the feedback method below.

• 5:1 Ratio — 5 positives for 1 corrective

Positive: Tell them when, what and why their actions were effective.

Corrective: Tell them when, what and why their actions were not effective.

Then brainstorm a more effective action and why it is more effective.

Stay connected

• Do coffee rounds every morning.

• Set team productivity indicators.

How do they know they are getting good results?

• Acknowledge milestones and achievements.

• Match rewards with the individual.

Monday, 12 December 2011

How To Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

Losing weight is hard, but keeping it off is even harder, especially during the holidays. Fitness expert Lisa Lynn tells us tips on how to avoid holiday weight gain.

How To Get a Christmas Tree For Less

Consumers are often most focused on saving on gifts during the holidays, but there's another big purchase they should be interested in scoring a lower price on: their Christmas tree.

Depending on size, these evergreens -- real or artificial -- can set families back a few hundred dollars. To help you spare some of the expense, we asked savings experts for a few tips on finding a cheaper holiday tree.

One big purchase worth saving on: the Christmas tree, which can set families back a few hundred dollars.

Cut down your own.
There are several areas in the country where you can chop down your own evergreen after buying a $4 to $15 permit from the National Forest Service or your local Bureau of Land Management office. Additional charges for the tree will vary, depending on where you ultimately get the tree.

"This is by far the most affordable way to get a high quality, live Christmas tree," says Andrew Schrage, a founder of and a Deal Pro.

Comparison shop.
There's probably more than one local tree provider within driving distance of your home, so Andrea Woroch, consumer savings expert with, suggests plugging your ZIP code into the National Christmas Tree Association Web site to scout out all of your options. Once you have a list in hand, you can call around to find out who is offering the trees for the most reasonable price.

Schrage says real Christmas trees sold at major retailers, such as Wal-Mart or Home Depot, are already some of the cheapest around, but local farms are often your best bet for a "quality live tree that is sure to last through the holidays."

You can also buy a Christmas tree online, so Woroch suggests looking for coupon codes for artificial trees on,, and Schrage says folks in the market for an artificial tree should expect to spend at least $100.

Once you've identified the most affordable provider in your area, don't be afraid to see if you can get an even deeper discount. "Look for any imperfections and ask for a price reduction," Woroch says.

You can check out this article if you need to learn more about haggling.

Hold out.
The truth is, the closer you get to Dec. 25, the cheaper trees - especially fresh-cut ones - are going to get, since retailers look to unload excess inventory as Christmas nears. Woroch suggests holding out until the week before Christmas, then calling around to local providers to ask if they have any extras they want to get rid of or any trees available at a discount.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

How To Make a Deadly Pandemic Virus

In science, the unwritten rule has always been to publish your results first and worry about the fallout later. More knowledge is always good, right? Information wants to be free.

But what if the thing you want to publish is truly frightening?

Millions-dead kind of frightening.

This isn't a rhetorical question, in light of some experiments now in the pipeline for publication. H5N1 influenza viruses—a.k.a Avian flu—are efficient killers that have wiped out poultry flocks and some 600 or so hapless people who came into close contact with the birds. But at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, virologist Ron Fouchier has created an Avian flu that, unlike other H5N1 strains, easily spreads between ferrets—which have so far proven a reliable model for determining transmissibility in humans. What's more, his breakthrough, funded by the National Institutes of Health, involved relatively low-tech methods.

Are you scared yet? You have reason to be. In the December 2 issue of Science magazine, Fouchier admits that his creation "is probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make," while Paul Keim, a scientist who works on anthrax, adds, "I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one." (Here's a summary; you'll need a subscription to read the full text.)

Now Fouchier hopes to publish the results of experiments that many scientists believe should never have been done in the first place. He and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin who is reportedly seeking to publish a similar study, have long pursued this line of research, hoping to determine whether H5N1 has the potential to become infectious in people, a jump that could trigger a worldwide pandemic. Knowing the specific genetic mutations that make the virus transmissible, Fouchier told Science, will help researchers respond quickly if this sort of killer virus were to emerge in nature.

This type of research is euphemistically known as "dual-use," which means it could be used for good or evil. Publishing such work is a "risk-benefit calculation," Donald Kennedy, then editor-in-chief of Science, told me for a story published on the first anniversary of 9/11. Science, Kennedy said, had never rejected an article out of concern that the information could be misused, although, he added, "I suppose one could conceive of a scenario in which one would decline to publish."

"If I were a journal editor and I received an article that said how to make a bioweapon, I'd never publish it, but that would be based on self-regulation, not any government restriction," added bioterror expert and retired Harvard professor Matt Meselson. "I've never heard of a case where the government has restricted publication. I don't think it would work."

Kawaoka, whose lab has also published methods for reconstituting a pathogenic virus from its DNA sequence, didn't respond to Science, but when I talked to him back in 2002, he was adamant that dual-use data should be published. He argued that even recipes for nuclear weapons exist online, and that once you start censoring potentially dangerous results, you may as well ban knives and guns and even airplanes—the terrorists' weapon of choice the previous September.

What most troubles critics now was the lack of any meaningful review of Fouchier's experiments before they were conducted. Some scientists think any work this dangerous should be vetted by an international panel; others reject the notion, fearing that such a move would create an unacceptable bottleneck in the flow of scientific information.

Back in 2002, I also spoke with Brian Mahy, a virologist with the Centers for Disease Control, and part of the team that had sequenced smallpox and several other highly dangerous pathogens in the early 1990s. Toward the end of the smallpox project, Mahy told me, the team had internal debates about whether to go public. "My view is it was scientific evidence that needed to be in the public domain, and we're a public institution, so we published it," he said. "There were suggestions it be burned onto a CD-ROM and chained to [then-CDC chief] Bernadine Healy's desk."

But such decisions, then and now, have been left largely in the hands of the researchers. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an NIH advisory panel, is currently reviewing the Fouchier and Kawaoka papers, according to Science. But in 2007, the board recommended against mandating prior reviews of dual-use research. Instead, it suggested that scientists alert their institutional review boards to any experiments of concern—something they were supposed to be doing already. Keim, who sits on the NSABB, told Science that any potential risks should be flagged at "the very first glimmer of an experiment…You shouldn't wait until you have submitted a paper before you decide it's dangerous."

These particular experiments, it's safe to say, were exceedingly strong candidates for scrutiny.

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