Dec 20, 2008

Entertainment - Q&A Akshay Kumar

Akshay Kumar gets chatty on kicking it up a notch for Chandni Chowk to China

Chandni Chowk To China is semi autobiographical. True?
The only thing which is common between my life and Chandni Chowk To China is that I was born in Chandni Chowk. And while I was a cook, I play a halwai (laughs) in this film. When I heard this script, it was from Bombay To China but then they changed it to Chandni Chowk To China – and I am happy with the change.

You’ll be seen in an action avatar after a long time. Was it a conscious effort?
Warner Brothers were part of this project. So I took it on without giving much thought of whether it was an action or comedy.

How difficult was it to play this role?
Shooting on The Great Wall Of China, doing Kung-fu with Chinese masters, fighting with Sir Gordon Liu was really tough.

Have you seen any of Gordon Liu’s films?
Yes, of course. He is the guy who introduced Kung-fu to the big screen. He is awesome in 36 Chambers Of Shaolin. I must have seen the film over 50 times and still love watching it.

What was the most memorable incident while shooting for the movie?
The whole film was memorable. Until now, nobody has got a chance to shoot on The Great Wall Of China, not even for a Hollywood film. And I got a chance to run on it. This is India’s first Kung-fu Bollywood masala film which makes it really special.

The Bohemia song in which you have rapped proclaims that you are ‘the superstar’.
I am not saying I am ‘the superstar’, it’s just a rap. Shah Rukh and I are the only actors in Bollywood who have come this far on our own. Neither his nor my forefathers belong to this field. So if I can make it, if he can make it, everyone out there can also do so. One only needs one’s parents’ blessings, belief in God and hard work.

Which was the most difficult stunt?
I had to carry Deepika on my forearms (laughs). The most difficult job was learning Kung-fu.

Do you find any difference in the kind of action shown in Bollywood before vis a vis how it is projected now?
Yes, there is; because technology has changed for the better. Our Indian fight masters have improved by leaps and bounds. They have learnt a lot from the West.

You are acknowledged as a superstar but haven’t got a major award till date. How do you feel?
Aapko chaiye award ... aap le lo … Mere paas parre hote hain ... bahut milte hain (laughs).

Any specific reason why the movie is being premiered in Los Angeles?
If Warner Brothers were from Nepal, then we would have had to go to Nepal.

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi;How you can propel change, make a difference (G.Read)

Is there something that we can do with the anger that all of us feel in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks? Can we find some constructive way of channelling it apart from appearing on TV shows and demanding that so-called Pakistani flags be removed from slums near our favourite five-star hotels?

It saddens me that so many morons from Mumbai’s chattering classes went on TV to declare that on the whole terrorism was a bad thing but gosh, when it appeared this close to their doorstep it was so bad that we really had to give up on democracy/attack Pakistan/abandon our civil liberties/not pay taxes or whatever.
Because the middle class awakening can make a difference. There are ways in which the educated middle class can use this anger to push for changes in the system. The events of 26/11 exposed the structural weakness in the way India is protected. We may not have the votes to change the way in which it is governed, but we certainly have the power to push for changes in the way it is policed. I yield to nobody in my admiration for the Armed Forces (despite the odd admiral who may have behaved like a prat in the aftermath of the crisis) but the problems in our security structure do not have anything to do with our excellent army, air force or navy.
They have to do with the police. It worries me that the police have not got the credit they deserve for the successes of 26/11. If you look at the CCTV footage that was released by the authorities of the scene inside the Taj you realize that long before the commandos went in, lightly armed Mumbai police officers and constables were already inside risking their lives as automatic fire and grenades rained down on them.

The deaths of such officers as Hemant Karkare took place only because they led from the front, actually placing themselves in the line of fire. We forget also the sacrifices of individual lower-level officers and constables—the railway policemen who attacked the terrorists with their World War II vintage 303s and the policemen from Mumbai’s DB Marg station who using hand arms and lathis arrested Mohammed Ajmal Kasab—and got him alive. One sub-inspector, a 54-year-old man with a family, grabbed Kasab and did not let go of him even as he was shot several times. He died but his efforts put Kasab into custody.
We forget also that the NSG—the undoubted heroes of the siege—is a joint venture between the police and the army; the NSG’s director general, J.K. Dutt, who personally led the operation and impressed all of India with his modesty, clear-headedness and leadership qualities, is an officer from the Indian Police Service (he is now probably the one alumnus that students of Mayo College, where he studied, are most proud of but that’s another story).
The NSG was set up by Rajiv Gandhi (as was the Special Protection Group, India’s answer to the US Secret Service and one of our finest forces—also run by the IPS) specifically to fight terrorism and it has never failed at a single operation.
One problem is that successive governments have not had Rajiv Gandhi’s passion for security and intelligence and all the forces have been denied many of the facilities that they require to function effectively. A larger problem is that all state governments ignore the crucial issue of police reform for fear that a professional police force will not allow them to interfere with its functioning.
It’s here that the middle class has a role to play—it is one area where we can make a difference and can change things for the better.
Take the example of the NSG. No sooner had the media highlighted the fact that the force did not even have a designated plane than the government promptly ordered three planes for the NSG. Now, the strength of the NSG will go up and there will be NSG units stationed in major cities.
All this is entirely due to pressure from the media. It’s not just the media that can make a difference. I saw banker Amit Chandra, lawyer Cyril Shroff, businessman Cyrus Gazdar and others on Maneka Doshi’s CNBC programme and was impressed by the clear-headedness of their vision. Now that group has found more like them and taken the legal route. They’ve filed public interest litigation demanding that the Mumbai police be given the facilities they need to secure the city effectively.
They have also asked why successive reports of police commissions have been ignored. And they’ve urged the court to ask state governments to push ahead with police reform.
Those members of the group I have spoken to are realistic about their prospects. They know that the battle for reform of the police force—which involves many state governments and political parties—will be a long and hard one (can you see Mayawati agreeing to let go of her hold on the UP police, for instance?). But they think that the effort is worth it.
They are more optimistic about using the judicial system to get the Mumbai police the facilities they need. Their petition asks the court to appoint a citizens group to oversee the process. That way we can be sure that the money that is spent actually goes on the right things.
So yes, there is a role for the educated middle class. What a shame then that the buffoons of Mumbai’s Page 3 set nearly blew it for us.

Entertainment - Tom Cruise's son makes his debut in Seven Pounds

LONDON: Actor Tom Cruise's son Connor Cruise is following his father's footsteps closely.

The 13-year-old Connor has made his acting debut in Seven Pounds which opens in theatres on Friday, six days before his father's latest film Valkyrie hits the cinemas.

The adopted son of Cruise and former wife Nicole Kidman has made his debut in Cruise's good friend Will Smith's movie, 'The Telegraph' reported.

But where Connor's role is limited to a few lines, his father is the star of Valkyrie, the story of how some German officers tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Cruise, recently said in an interview that he had been anxious not to put his children under pressure to become actors.

"Who knows what he's going to do?" he had said. "He's grown up on (acting). I've always had my kids there, in hair and makeup, just always around the sets. They've worked on sets," the actor said.

The Mission Impossible star said he attended Connor's audition for Seven Pounds and it was "a great father-son moment" for him.

But unfortunately Cruise said that he had to be shooed away from the room by the director.

Cruise said he has done role playing games with his children and they have watched him developing characters at home.

With Connor's mother Nicole Kidman also starring in the Baz Luhrmann's Australia, the extended Hollywood dynasty is dominating the box-office this festive season.

Entertainment - Jen ended up naked on GQ cover by 'accident'

NEW YORK: Jennifer Aniston says her naked photo for the cover of an American men's magazine was an accident because the shoot was intended to expose her in mere "moments of undress".

Aniston features on the GQ cover posing in a red and white striped tie, but insists she didn't quite intend to fully strip down, reports.

She said: "There was a theme to that photoshoot. It was supposed to be moments of undress — starting off in a gown, and then the men were in their tuxedos, then we were going to have me in one of their shirts and then their pants and then somehow that all went out of the window and then there just ended up being a tie."

India - Babus paid more than athletes in Beijing Olympics

Eklavya Atray

NEW DELHI: Indian athletes may have brought home the country’s maiden gold and two bronze medals from the Olympics, but it was the bureaucrats and politicians accompanying them who were paid more by the government during their stay in Beijing.

In a reply to a query filed by DNA under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Union youth affairs and sports ministry said that while athletes and coaches were paid $50 each as daily pocket allowance, the babus and netas who went to Beijing as part of the official delegation received $75 a day.

The pocket allowance was over and above the spending on boarding and lodging. For the sports contingent these expenses were taken care of by the Beijing Olympic Committee while for the delegation, they were borne by the Indian embassy.

Among the people who received $75 a day were minister of state for youth affairs and sports MS Gill and Lok Sabha members Vijay Bahuguna and Krishna Tirath. The other members of the official delegation were Rajya Sabha member Bhubaneshwar Kalita and several bureaucrats, including sports secretary Sudhir Nath, two joint secretaries, and Sports Authority of India director-general Sayan Chatterjee.

The ministry said Rs12.19 lakh was spent on the travel of the 13 bureaucrats and politicians and arrangements for their lodging and boarding were made by the Indian embassy at Beijing.

“We used to get an allowance of $50 a day, which is hardly anything hardly gets a few decent meals in it. The problem is much worse at the Asiad, where players get no allowance,” said Commonwealth boxer Virender Singh said.

Asiad medal-winning runner Bharat Kumar, said, “ If only players could get better allowances, they may change their lifestyle a little.”

Entertainment - Q&A Akon;India

Prithwish Ganguly

Your first visit to India was a while ago. What do you remember about it?
I had a wonderful time in India. I took back lots of memories. It was our first time there and I remember thinking that in Mumbai, the crowd is incredible. It reminded me of my home, Africa. I liked the hospitality and the food and am looking forward to returning.

Will the recent terror attacks on the city deter you?
Situations like that happen during a transition and do not last forever. It is all a matter of the people working together and coming up with agreements that benefit the whole race. I don’t think it will deter me from performing in India in future.

Your record — Snack That — was a hot favourite in India. What are your expectations from Freedom?
Expectations are always very high. I’m hoping this album does better than the last one. A lot of time and effort have gone into it; I hope people go out and pick up the album.

Have you seen any Bollywood movie?
I’m very bad with names but I remember watching some. The patent theme of love and romance is quite common in most. But some of the love stories are amazing.

What is your impression about Indian women?
Indian women are the most beautiful women in the world. I have no words to describe them.

You have teamed up with many international artistes like Michael Jackson, Gwen Stefani and Chamillionaire; who is your favourite?
I’m just blessed to be in a situation where I can work with different artistes who help me expand my audience everywhere. I love the fact that I can work with them and still keep the authenticity of what I’m doing. I can never say which one’s my favourite. They all play a big role in what I am doing

Entertainment - Rab Ne on way to becoming a big hit

MUMBAI: Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which was released worldwide on December 12, has grossed Rs90 crore in its opening week, which is on a par with and in some places even higher than two of the highest opening-week grossers till date: Om Shanti Om and Singh Is Kinng.

The film's producer Yash Raj Films claimed that Rab Ne... had also broken all earlier opening-week collection records for the banner, having surpassed the opening week collections of Dhoom: 2 which is regarded as one of the highest grossing movies of all time.

The total collection for Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi in India is around Rs42 crore net (gross Rs70 crore). The total gross collection for all overseas markets is over $4 million (around Rs20 crore), a Yash Raj Films statement said.

In West Asia, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi has broken all previous records for first week collections, netting just under $1.3 million. The previous highest grossing film in the Gulf, which has a sizeable Indian expatriate population, was Dhoom: 2, which grossed approximately $1.86 million in its entire run.

Rab Ne..., a romantic film directed by Aditya Chopra and featuring newcomer Anushka Sharma, is on course to break this all-time record going into its second week, the statement claimed.

The film has also had a grand opening week across overseas markets, including the UK, USA, Australia, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and features in the list of highest grossers for the opening week in most of these territories.

"The film has the potential to finish as one of the biggest blockbusters of all time," the producer's statement said.

Business - Panasonic to acquire Sanyo for up to $9 billion

Tokyo: Japan’s Panasonic Corp. said Friday it had cleared the way to acquire struggling Sanyo Electric Co. for up to nine billion dollars, forming an industry heavyweight amid the global downturn.
The deal is the first major realignment of Japan’s electronics industry since the start of the economic crisis, which has led companies to suspend production as consumer demand dries up.
Panasonic will buy Sanyo shares from US investment firm Goldman Sachs and Japan’s Daiwa Securities and Sumitomo Mitsui, giving a badly needed cash injection into the financial sector as it reels from the credit crunch.
“We, the electronics industry, are faced with the need to restructure amid the global recession as well as a downward shift in prices and the growth of emerging markets,” Panasonic president Fumio Ohtsubo told a news conference.
“Under these circumstances, it is all the more important to strengthen our management practices to grow further,” he said.
Sanyo, which started off making bicycle lamps after World War II, has cut thousands of jobs as it attempts to return to profit.
Recently it has tried to focus on environmental technologies including solar energy and rechargeable batteries - areas coveted by Panasonic.
Panasonic said it had reached a deal on a tender offer aiming to secure a 70.5 % stake in Sanyo at 131 yen a share, valuing the deal at a maximum of 800 billion yen (around $9 billion).
Ohtsubo said that the companies sought to increase operating profit by 80 billion yen in the 2012 financial year through the tie-up.
“What we want to add as our new core business is the energy business,” including batteries which are key to eco-friendly hybrid cars, Ohtsubo said.
“In order to accelerate the synergy effect of our two companies, we are ready to invest 100 billion yen,” mostly in the battery business but also in other fields, he said.
“We believe that we will evolve into a corporate group which will be highly admired globally, coexisting in harmony with the global environment,” he said.
Sanyo, which like Panasonic is based in the western Japanese metropolis of Osaka, will remain listed.
Sanyo has had a troubled few years. It was forced to raise cash by issuing new shares, effectively handing over control to Goldman Sachs and other financial firms.
Toshimasa Iue, a member of the founding family, stepped down last year after he clashed with the big investors over how far to restructure the company.
Panasonic, which is already Japan’s biggest seller of consumer electronics, has been seeking to raise its global profile against rivals -- notably Sony Corp. -- that enjoy solid name recognition.
Kazumasa Kubota, an analyst at Okasan Securities, said that despite the high cost, “in the longer term the acquisition is absolutely an advantage for Panasonic.”
“Sanyo reportedly holds hundreds of patents in the field of battery technology and has strengths in solar power,” he said.
Kubota credited Panasonic with negotiating shrewdly, knowing that Goldman Sachs needed cash.
Just two weeks earlier, Goldman Sachs had rejected an offer from Panasonic that was reported to be 130 yen per share - only one yen difference from the 131 yen in the agreement.
But on Tuesday, Goldman Sachs reported a 2.12 billion dollar net loss in the fiscal fourth quarter to November, the first time it has gone into the red since going public in 1999.

Entertainment - Yash Chopra takes control of Yash Raj

Kunal M Shah

Yash Chopra has been having sleepless nights after YRF’s recent film, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi didn’t prove to be as big a hit as expected. He has finally decided to take control of things.

Earlier this week, the long-expected meeting to get YRF back to its earlier glory took place between Aditya Chopra and his father, Yash Chopra.

This meeting was long overdue as industry insiders were wondering why Chopra Senior wasn’t taking the necessary steps to set things right at YRF after the banner suffered a loss of over Rs 100 crore in the last two years.

A well-placed source from YRF said, “Yashji was taken aback when the opening of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi wasn’t as encouraging as expected. The fact that the film’s collections improved after the first day and then dropped on Monday did not help much.

Earlier this week, Yashji had a meeting with Aditya to discuss these matters. Yashji was particularly against the idea of hiring several technicians, directors and writers on a contract basis.

Yashji was also quite concerned that the music of none of their recent films had done well. He felt that selling the music rights would have been a far better business decision.

According to the source, Yashji called for the meeting as he was upset that as many as 10 Yash Raj films have not done good business in the last two years.

The only films that did average business were Bachna Ae Haseeno and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Only two Yash Raj films, Dhoom 2 and Chak De! India proved to be successful.

Their experiment with animation (Roadside Romeo) also failed miserably. Even the audio and video divisions have failed. One of the first things that Yashji wants to do is start directing his long pending film which will probably feature Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif.

“Many directors like Sanjay Gadhvi and Kunal Kohli have left YRF and several actors like Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan don’t want to associate themselves with the banner.

Yashji wants to tackle these issues himself. He will be enforcing some rules after considering every aspect,” said the source.

The recent Yash Raj films that failed are Roadside Romeo, Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, Tashan, Aaja Nachle, Laaga Chunri Mein Daag, Tara Rum Pum and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

Despite sending repeated text messages, YRF remained unavailable for comment.

10 Yash Chopra commandments

• Reconsider the rates of YRF Studios as the shooting floor rents are very expensive
• Reconsider the rates of dubbing, canteen and preview theatre
• Start his directorial venture immediately
• Take a decision about the YRF Music label
• Reconsider selling video rights
• Rework the contracts of writers and directors who are hired on a monthly basis
• Think several times before acquiring films for distribution
• Closely look into every aspect of the film before it is released
• Don’t make films with newcomers
• Don’t demand exorbitant terms from exhibitors

Health - Some cough medicine overdoses deliberate: report

Maggie Fox

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some children showing up in emergency rooms with overdoses of cough or cold syrup may have been intentionally medicated to keep them quiet, doctors cautioned on Thursday.

An analysis of 189 children who died from medication overdoses showed a significant percentage appeared to have been intentionally overdosed, the doctors reported in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

"This is a heads up," said Dr. Richard Dart, director of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver.

In 79 of the cases, an adult gave the child nonprescription medicine. In 19 cases the adults clearly meant to help the child, but in 26 cases a panel of experts determined the intent was not to treat, Dart said.

He said a panel of experts had to agree that the intent was clear. "They were quite certain in all the cases they decided were intentional," Dart said in a telephone interview.

"We had some cases where the parent poured it into the kid's mouth directly from the bottle," he added.

In October, U.S. makers of over-the-counter cough and cold medications, urged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, advised that these drugs should not be used in children under 4 and the FDA is considering requests to ban their use in children under 12.

Dart said complications from accidental misuse are known and dangerous.

"We aren't trying to say there aren't accidents. I am concerned that we have blinders on and we don't want to admit that there is a group of parents who all the warnings in the world won't help because they did it knowingly," he said.

"What we have is a group of adults who want to control the behavior of children and do it in a variety of ways," Dart added.

"Sometimes it is physical violence and sometimes it is drugs. They tend to be lower-income, under-educated parents, often with a history of child abuse or violence in the home. I think there is a clear population here for us to focus on that are involved in these events."

Parents should also be aware that some of the adults who gave the medications to the children were day-care providers who probably were not malevolent in their actions but simply overwhelmed and looking for a way to quiet down their charges, Dart said.

An estimated 4 million children under the age of 12 are treated with over-the-counter cough and cold products each week in the United States.

(Editing by Anthony Boadle)

Health - Second-hand smoke tied to fertility problems

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Women who have ever been around smokers regularly may have more difficulty getting pregnant than those who have not, a new study suggests. The findings, researchers say, offer one more reason for women to kick the smoking habit.

Studies have found that women who smoke raise their risk of a number of pregnancy complications, as well as their infants' risk of health problems. Less is known about the dangers of second-hand smoke, though some studies have linked exposure during pregnancy to an elevated risk of miscarriage.

In the new study, of more than 4,800 women, researchers found those who'd grown up with a parent who smoked were more likely to report they'd had difficulty becoming pregnant -- defined as having to try for more than 1 year.

In addition, women who'd been exposed to second-hand smoke in both childhood and adulthood were 39 percent more likely to have suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth, and 68 percent more likely to have had problems getting pregnant.

"These statistics are breathtaking and certainly (point) to yet another danger of second-hand smoke exposure," said lead researcher Luke J. Peppone at the University of Rochester, New York.

"We all know that cigarettes and second hand smoke are dangerous," he added. "Breathing the smoke has lasting effects, especially for women when they're ready for children."

Peppone and his colleagues at the University of Rochester in New York report their findings in the December 5 online issue of the journal Tobacco Control.

For the study, the researchers analyzed surveys from 4,804 women who'd visited the university's Roswell Park Cancer Institute between 1982 and 1998 for health screening or cancer treatment. All had been pregnant at least once in their lives.

Overall, Peppone's team found 11 percent of the women had difficulty becoming pregnant, while one third had a miscarriage or stillbirth.

The risk of these problems tended to climb in tandem with the number of hours per day that a woman was exposed to second-hand smoke -- a pattern that suggests a cause-effect relationship.

Second-hand smoke contains a host of toxic compounds that could potentially harm a woman's reproductive health, Peppone and his colleagues note. Tobacco toxins may damage cells' genetic material, interfere with conception, raise the risk of miscarriage, or inhibit the hormones needed for conception and a successful pregnancy.

Lifestyle - U.S. Teens Portrayed as Violent, Unethical

Robert Roy Britt

More than a quarter of all U.S. teenagers think violent behavior is at least sometimes acceptable, and one in five say they behaved violently toward another person in the past year, according to a new poll.

Most said self-defense (87 percent) or helping a friend (73 percent) were acceptable justifications for violence. But 34 percent said revenge was a sufficient motivation. The poll was conducted by Opinion Research for the school-support organization Junior Achievement and the tax and consulting firm Deloitte, LLC.

More than three-fourths of the respondents who said violence is acceptable also consider themselves ethically prepared to enter the work force. That sticks in the craw of David W. Miller, director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative and a professor of business ethics at Princeton University.

In an analysis released with the poll, Miller suggests the survey results bode ill for the future workforce. It's not clear that's the case, however. In fact, teens are known to think differently than adults because their brains have not matured. Scans reveal that teens' ethics change dramatically as they grow into adulthood. Or do they?

'Highly troubling'

The survey of 750 young people (half boys, half girls) age 12 to 17 was conducted between Oct. 9 and Oct. 12. The results were released this week.

"It is highly troubling that so many teenagers have a self-image of ethical readiness and the confidence in their ability to make good decisions later in life, yet at the same time freely admit to current behavior that is highly unethical," Miller said in a statement accompanying the poll results.

"Employers will have their hands full if a quarter of teens grow up still willing to resort to violence and other unethical behavior when it comes to making decisions about how to settle differences, protect their interests or get ahead," said Miller, who is also author of "God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement (Oxford University Press, 2006).

There are potential problems with Miller's take on the poll, however.

Teens lie

First, polls can be greatly skewed based on how questions are framed and by how honestly people respond. Adults are known to lie through their teeth in sex surveys, for example. In one Web-based survey, women claimed on average 8.6 lifetime sexual partners. The men claimed 31.9. Some researchers doubt those disparate figures are accurate. A follow-up survey found about 5 percent of each sex said they lied and more than 10 percent said they knew their answer wasn't accurate.

It's reasonable to assume that teenagers, who are prone to prevaricate and whose brains are known to be not fully formed, might fib, knowingly or unknowingly, about heavy questions on topics like violence.

In a telephone interview today, Miller agreed to this possibility, but he cites another question in the poll aimed at getting around this issue: Some 41 percent of the respondents reported a friend had behaved violently toward someone else in the past year. That response, Miller said, is less likely to involve lies.

Words vs. actions

Second, it's also quite possible few of the teens would actually act on the hypothetical responses they gave.

LiveScience's Bad Science Columnist Ben Radford points out that a study of teen virginity pledges, as an example, found that nearly 90 percent of them broke their vow. Another study at Harvard University found that more than half of adolescents who make signed, public pledges on things like virginity and violence give up on their pledges within one year. And in what will not sound ironic to any parent, three-fourths of the teens who pledged not to have sex but did, later denied having made the pledge.

Miller questions whether lying about sexual activity, which may be driven more by hormones than reason, translates to the poll on violence. "We lie about some things, and at the same time, we tell the truth about other things," he said. "Lying in one category does not mean logically we'll lie in others."

Miller also said, regarding words vs. deeds, that today's teens are exposed to exponentially more violence on TV, in video games, in movies, on the Internet, and even in popular extreme sports like kick boxing, "making violent acts seem normative. That's something prior generations didn't have."

Teens grow up

Third, without a similar version of this teen violence poll having been done decades ago, it is impossible to know whether Miller's basic concern - that the state of a teenage mind on such things as intentions and ethics actually predicts adult behavior - holds any water. In fact, science has plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite.

A 2006 study involving questions about how participants (teens and adults) would react to certain situations was, importantly, coupled with brain scans while they answered. Scientists found that teens, frankly, don't care about people's feelings as much as adults do. The part of the brain associated with higher-level thinking isn't fully operational.

Specifically, teens were found to barely use the part of the brain known to be involved in thinking about other people's emotions when considering a course of action.

"Thinking strategies change with age," said neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the University College London. "The fact that teenagers underuse the medial pre-frontal cortex when making decisions about what to do, implies that they are less likely to think about how they themselves and how other people will feel as a result of their intended action."

The idea of violence in a teen's mind, then, is not likely viewed the same as in an adult mind.

Miller, too, allows that teens change. "Let's hope so!" he said. "All teenagers in all generations go through a stage of boundary testing ... and figuring out where the right ethical boundaries are," he told me. "At some level there's nothing new in that. On the other hand, the data is pretty compelling."

Coupled with other data that suggest today's teenagers, and the millennials before them, "tend to embrace ethical relativism, that even as they mature into adults, they will have cultivated habits and brains that are capable of rationalizing behavior that serves their interests, irrespective of traditional societal expectations or understandings of right and wrong," he said.

"I wouldn't overreact" to the survey," Miller said, "but I think to under-react and interpret it as natural youth boundary testing is naive too."

Unethical adults

Lastly, Miller worries not just about violence but that teens will carry their ethical relativism into adulthood. On that point he might be right: A lot of adults have lousy ethics. One need look no farther than the Wall Street Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff or the New England Patriots head football coach Bill Belichick's cheating last year for proof.

Bad ethics is not just the purview of the powerful, either. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults think cheating on taxes is morally acceptable or is not a moral issue, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2006. About 10 percent think it's okay to cheat on a spouse.

Cheating is not the same as violence, of course, but if the issue is modern teen ethics, then adults who supposedly grew up in a better era are not necessarily a model to which today's teens ought to aspire

Tech - US gives green light for first commercial spaceport

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US Federal Aviation Administration has given the green light for the world's first commercial spaceport, New Mexico authorities said Thursday.

The FAA granted Spaceport America a license for vertical and horizontal space launches following an environmental impact study, according to the New Mexico Space Authority (NMSA).

"These two governmental approvals are the next steps along the road to a fully operational commercial spaceport," said NMSA Executive Director Steven Landeene.

"We are on track to begin construction in the first quarter of 2009, and have our facility completed as quickly as possible."

The terminal and hangar facility for horizontal launches is planned for completion by late 2010.

NMSA hopes to sign a lease agreement later this month with Virgin Galactic, a branch of Virgin Atlantic owned by British airline magnate Richard Branson. The firm's SpaceShipTwo passenger craft will be the main attraction at the site.

The system plans to take passengers approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) into the sky. Virgin Galactic plans to welcome 500 passengers per year who will pay 200,000 dollars each for a suborbital flight lasting three to four minutes.

There have been several commercial launches from the site since April 2007, with more launches planned.

Spaceport America has also been working closely with aerospace firms Lockheed Martin, Rocket Racing Inc./Armadillo Aerospace, UP Aerospace, Microgravity Enterprises and Payload Specialties.

The Russian federal space agency currently offers the only orbital space tourism flights aboard the Soyuz spacecraft, which allows passengers to visit the International Space Station (ISS) for several days. The price for the trip recently increased from 20 million dollars to 35 million dollars.

Business - Video-Game Sales Remain Robust In November

Mark Long

The research firm NPD Group reports that U.S. retail video-game sales totaled $2.91 billion in November -- a 10 percent jump from one year earlier. Moreover, video-game sales grew 22 percent through the first 11 months of 2008 in comparison with the prior year.

Video-game software sales also grew 11 percent to $1.45 billion in November, and rose a whopping 31 percent to $8.21 billion in the year to date. The latest hard data confirms the results from an NPD Group survey released last month, in which consumers identified video games as the top product category in which they were least likely to make spending cutbacks this holiday season.

Top of the Charts

Earlier this autumn, 64 percent of the U.S. parents surveyed by Microsoft and Harris Interactive said they saw video games as a good way to devote more holiday time to an activity that the entire family could enjoy. Additionally, 60 percent of the respondents to another U.S.-based survey conducted by Microsoft in collaboration with Ipsos and StrategyOne said they anticipated spending the holiday season at home to save money.

For this reason, 81 percent of the parents surveyed said they were looking to buy gifts this year that would entertain everyone in the comfort of their living rooms. Nintendo agrees. "Shoppers are looking for gifts that can be enjoyed by the whole family," said Cammie Dunaway, an executive vice president at Nintendo of America.

According to NPD, the Xbox 360 releases Gears of War 2 and Call of Duty: World at War, topped the video-game charts in November with unit sales of 1.57 million and 1.41 million, respectively. Three games made for Nintendo consoles rounded out the top five best sellers: Wii Play (796,000 units), Wii Fit (697,000 units), and Mario Kart Wii (637,000 units). The best sales performers for Sony's consoles were Call of Duty: World at War and Resistance 2, which ranked at No. 6 and No. 9, respectively.

Building Momentum

Sony is hoping to make further inroads beginning this month by offering free downloads of PlayStation Home Beta -- a 3-D social-gaming community for the PS3 that enables users to create and customize their own unique avatars and interact with the virtual community in real time. "We are committed to providing PS3 users with exciting gaming experiences with PlayStation Home and, together with our partners and users, expand the new world of interactive entertainment as we move forward," said Kazuo Hirai, Sony CEO.

Nintendo intends to keep growing the popularity of its gaming platforms by unleashing a torrent of new releases in the first quarter of 2009, including the latest entry in its popular Pokémon series. "We're building on the momentum of a strong holiday season by offering new and experienced players an even greater library of game titles in 2009," Dunaway said.

Gaming-hardware sales also boomed in November, growing 10 percent to $1.21 billion in comparison with the year-earlier period, NPD said. Among the top three platforms, Wii led the pack with sales of 2.04 million, followed by 1.57 million for the Nintendo DS and 836,000 for Microsoft's Xbox 360. The combined sales of Sony's three PlayStation models reached the 1.05 million mark.

Though Xbox 360 sales lagged well behind Nintendo's console shipments in November, Microsoft said its sales on Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving -- delivered a modicum of holiday cheer. The software giant noted that its Xbox 360 console continues to enjoy the highest game-attach rate of any platform at 8.1 games per console.

Business - The Rise of the Four-Day Work Week?

Olga Kharif

Like many companies, Pella is looking to cut expenses because of the economic downturn. But instead of laying off more workers, the Iowa manufacturer of windows and doors is instituting a four-day workweek for about a third of its 3,900 employees. Chris Simpson, a senior vice-president at the company, acknowledges it's an unconventional move. But Pella believes the economy could turn around faster than most people expect, and it doesn't want to be caught short of experienced workers. "Our contention is, consumer confidence will rebound," says Simpson. "If there's a (government) stimulus package of some kind, we think people are going to respond."

A few employers are following Pella's lead in shortening the workweek. They include steel companies such as AK Steel (NYSE:AKS - News), the city of Atlanta, small newspapers, and hospitals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of employees who normally work full-time but now clock fewer than 35 hours a week because of poor business conditions has climbed 72%, to 2.57 million in November 2008, from 1.49 million in November 2007. "More companies are exploring alternatives to layoffs," says John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of the consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "If they can keep people on until the business turns around, the company would be in much better shape to ramp up quickly."

In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin is cutting the hours and pay of 4,600 employees by 10% because the city is facing a $50 million budget shortfall. Franklin says that if she were to lay off more workers instead of slashing hours, "you'd have to eliminate major functions of the government. It's not just jobs we've saved, it's services."

Many American tech companies are shutting down for a few extra days over the holidays. For the first time, PC maker Dell (NasdaqGS:DELL - News) is allowing employees to take up to five days without pay during the quarter ending in January. Some analysts believe such shutdowns in Silicon Valley will evolve into four-day workweeks. "Our contacts are saying (short weeks) will start in January," says Trip Chowdhry, an analyst with Global Equities Research.

Most employees prefer a reduction in hours to being laid off. But workers say there are costs either way. Pella employee Connie Davis says she plans to cut back on certain groceries when the four-day workweek takes effect in January. "Like anyone who's counting the pennies, I will tighten my belt a little bit," she says.

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Join a debate about whether paid sick days should be mandatory

Business - Retailers hope for crowds in final holiday push

Alexandria Sage

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Retailers prepared to open their doors early on Saturday in a final, frenzied push to save holiday sales, with the added disruption of a winter storm hitting the country's Midwest and Northeast.

Foul weather kept many shoppers close to home on Friday, with freezing rain and snow expected for several regions through the weekend.

The storm hits at the worst possible time for U.S. store chains, which are trying to salvage the critical holiday shopping season and lure recession-struck consumers with last-minute deals before Christmas next week.

Many shoppers have said they are giving fewer gifts and looking only for marked-down merchandise, grim news for retailers who may see their weakest holiday season since the early 1990s.

Stacy Maites stopped in the snow to look at the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship New York store on Friday. She is worried about her job at a technology company and has whittled down her annual holiday party to 20 people.

"It's minimal and only when I can find stuff on sale," she said of her gift-buying this year.

The National Retail Federation predicted on Friday that two-thirds of Americans still had holiday shopping left to do, while 44.5 million consumers still had not even begun.

"With so much shopping left to do, the weekend before Christmas will be one of the most important periods of the year for retailers," said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin.

Stores like Macy's Inc and J.C. Penney Co Inc were primed to greet shoppers starting at 6 a.m. after staying open until midnight on Friday.

"It's our last one day sale before Christmas" announced Macy's in a full-page ad that ran in many U.S. newspapers, accompanied by a $10 coupon. The department store chain even kept its doors open 24 hours at some East Coast locations.

Gap Inc's Old Navy chain advertised $6 deals on items from scarves to slippers, while Toys "R" Us said certain toys would be 50 percent off.


"Super Saturday" -- the Saturday before Christmas that represents the final major day of holiday shopping -- usually ranks just behind "Black Friday" as the single-largest holiday sales day. Black Friday fell on November 28 this year, the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.

This year, Saturday could be busier than expected, if storm conditions ease up. More severe weather was forecast for Sunday.

"You'll see a mad scramble... in the New York region because it's basically the only day we have," said Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer for weather tracking firm Planalytics. "Once you shovel out, go to the mall because another one is coming on Sunday."

Still, fewer shoppers in stores on Friday and Sunday could be a serious blow to store chains, who may be forced to further mark down merchandise. Online stores like Inc may benefit as consumers can shop from home and still have gifts delivered by Christmas.

The weekend before Christmas typically accounts for some 11.5 percent of holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak, which monitors shoppers at more than 50,000 retail locations.

Last year, Super Saturday totaled $8.7 billion in retail sales of everything from apparel to sporting goods and books, up 1 percent from the same day in 2006.

While most U.S. stores have seen months of dismal sales results, many are willing to sacrifice their profit margins by offering steep discounts just to make sure they will not be left with excess inventory come January.

(Additional reporting by Nicole Maestri in New York; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

Lifestyle - New Space toilet & A Door

Tariq Malik

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station hooked up their brand new space toilet this week, but it's missing one last touch: A simple door, for privacy.

The $19 million space commode's curtain-like door was left off intentionally pending the completion of other work on nearby equipment early next month. But mission managers may move up its installation to jump-start use of the orbital toilet.

"Today the toilet's just wide open, and so it's not in use just yet," said Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy space station program manager, in a Thursday briefing. "Mechanically and fluid-wise, it's fully functional today."

The Russian-built toilet is the second commode to be installed aboard the space station. Astronauts delivered the new toilet to the station's U.S. segment last month during an extreme orbital makeover to prime the outpost to double its crew size up to six astronauts next year.

While the toilet is vital to the station's ability to support larger crews, it's also part of a new regenerative life support system that collects astronaut sweat, urine and wastewater so it can be recycled back into potable water for drinking, food preparation, bathing and oxygen generation.

Shireman said engineers are considering having the toilet's door installed to begin using the space commode and fully testing the life support system.

"It's probably just an hour or two to put that thing up and to take it down again," he said.

Plumbing lines to pipe urine from the bathroom to the recycling system, are already in place along with others to route recycled water to a new kitchen also delivered last month.

Samples of water recycled from urine stored in containers aboard the station were returned to Earth for analysis and have checked out fine in tests, Shireman said. More purity tests are required before the water can cleared for human consumption, it has been approved for other uses, he added.

"We've approved for the crew to use it for bathing and shampooing their hair, just not for consumption," Shireman said, adding that the water is also being used to create oxygen aboard the station. "And we expect that to begin in late February or early March."

Shireman said space station astronauts also installed the outpost's new sleeping chambers this week and are gearing up for a planned Monday spacewalk.

Tech - Google increases search share in November: comScore

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Internet search giant Google slightly increased its share of the US search engine market in November, online researcher comScore Inc. reported.

The Reston, Virginia company said Google sites led the US search market in November with 63.5 percent of the searches conducted, a gain of 0.4 percentage points from October.

The number of searches conducted on Yahoo! sites fell 0.1 percentage points to 20.4 percent, comScore said.

Searches on Microsoft sites fell 0.2 percentage points to 8.3 percent. They were down by the same amount at Ask Network, which notched up 4.0 percent of total searches.

AOL gained 0.1 percentage points for 3.8 percent of the search market last month.

ComScore said Americans made a total of 12.3 billion searches in November, a three-percent decline from October, which had 31 days as opposed to 30.

It said that YouTube, the Google-owned video-sharing site, received 2.79 billion search queries in November, up from 2.58 billion in October.

Entertainment - PETA Deems Oprah a Friend of the Animals

Natalie Finn

Los Angeles (E! Online) – Turns out the one person who hasn't ruffled PETA's feathers this year is Oprah Winfrey.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has named the multimedia queen its 2008 Person of the Year for the efforts she has made through her talk show and other arenas "to help the less fortunate, including animals," the organization said in a statement.

Winfrey has "used her powerful voice to defend those without one," added PETA president Ingrid Newkirk.

Over the past year, Winfrey has done shows about puppy mills, the treatment of chickens and other animals living on factory farms, and the conditions that pigs and veal calves are subjected to before being put to slaughter.

In choosing Winfrey, PETA also cited the ultra-emotional reaction the TV icon had to the death of her cockerspaniel, Sophie, in March and the week that she went vegan at the behest of one of her guests.

Entertainment - Lisa Rinna Decides to Get Naked

Natalie Finn

Los Angeles (E! Online) – Not too shy to bare her bikini-ready bod, Lisa Rinna is apparently only gearing up for an even more revealing day in the sun.

The TV Guide Network correspondent and former Dancing With the Stars contestant has more or less confirmed rumors—well, she's certainly not doing anything to squelch them—that she's planning to pose nude for Playboy.

"I'm the worst liar on the planet, I can't lie, so...I think that could be a yes," she told Extra recently when asked about the possibility.

Not that this will be a new experience for the 45-year-old mother of two.

Rinna also took it all off for the House that Hef Built when she was Demi-on-the-cover-of-Vanity-Fair-pregnant with her and Harry Hamlin's now 10-year-old daughter, Delilah Belle, in 1998.

Entertainment - New U2 on the Horizon

Los Angeles (E! Online) – This Horizon is drawing near.

U2 today officially confirmed the title (No Line on the Horizon) and release date (March 3) for the band's hugely anticipated 12th studio album.

Bono and the boys began writing and recording the new disc, the follow-up to 2005's Grammy-winning How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, in Fez, Morocco. Additional sessions took place in New York, Dublin and London.

According to Billboard, the Hall of Fame quartet had initially expected to unleash Horizon this month but decided on the extra time to polish the tracks and complete two last-minute new songs.

U2 initially hired studio wiz Rick Rubin to oversee the recording, but they eventually replaced him with usual suspects Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, along with Steve Lillywhite. The threesome had variously teamed with the band for such classics as War, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby! and All That You Can't Leave Behind and wound up producing all the material on the new disc.

In an interview last month, The Edge told Mojo the new material "doesn't sound like anything we've done before, and it doesn't really sound like anything that's happening at the moment."

World - UK:London's red buses to go green in 2011

LONDON (AFP) – A new environmentally-friendly version of London's iconic red double-decker bus will be introduced in the British capital from 2011, officials said Friday.

The new Routemaster buses could also feature the sleek lines of an Aston Martin, after the sports car maker jointly won a competition to design them along with top architecture firm Foster and Partners.

The Aston Martin-Fosters proposal will go forward with a design by a British bus maker, Capoco, as the basis for the final shape of the new generation of the world-famous bus.

Routemasters, featuring open rear platforms and a spiral staircase, were taken out of service at the end of 2005, replaced by elongated "bendy buses" as well as a new generation of driver-only double-deckers.

Routemasters are still in operation, albeit only on popular tourist routes in London city centre.

As part of his election campaign earlier this year, new London Mayor Boris Johnson promised to bring back the Routemaster in some form.

The Aston Martin-Foster design features a zero-emissions double-decker that remains highly manoeuvrable, with solar panels built into the glass roof, warm lighting and wooden floors while remaining accessible for disable passengers.

Capoco's proposed bus has a low flat floor to allow passengers to get on and off easily, with a Routemaster-esque front engine, an open rear platform and will also be low emission.

Transport for London said it expected to award a contract for the development and manufacture of the first new bus by the end of 2009, with the vehicles expected to hit the British capital's streets by 2011.

Overall, more than 700 entries were submitted for the competition, with children actively encouraged to take part and given special prizes for the best entries in various age groups.

"When I launched the competition, I asked for stylish and imaginative designs which would resonate with Londoners," Johnson said.

"We have had a phenomenal response, with ideas submitted from around the globe, and we now have, in our joint winners, two stunning designs that allow us to go forward and produce a truly iconic bus fit for 21st century London.

"I know that, like me, Londoners will be waiting eagerly to see how these ideas evolve into the final design that will appear on our roads."

Entertainment - Music industry ends mass piracy lawsuits

Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The Recording Industry Association of America said on Friday it had abandoned mass lawsuits against Internet users who steal music, and instead would work with Internet service providers to discourage piracy.

The RIAA, which represents major U.S. record labels, will have the ISPs send warning notices to users who illegally download music files.

Since 2003, the music industry has sued about 35,000 Internet users for music piracy.

"We think this is going to be a different form of stick, but we absolutely think this will be a meaningful alternative approach that will have a significant impact," said Cara Duckworth, a spokeswoman for the RIAA.

Other measures will be taken against Internet users who ignore their first warning notice to stop illegally downloading music, and if those users continue they could find their Internet connections disconnected, the RIAA said.

The RIAA declined to say which ISPs had signed on for the initiative, and it said it reserved the right to sue Internet users who ignored the warning notices.

The RIAA said it would pursue lawsuits already pending against Internet users accused of illegal downloads.

The RIAA's change in strategy comes as Internet users have become increasingly aware that downloading pirated songs is illegal.

The group Arts+Labs, a collaborative between technology companies and creative artists, said in a statement that it was "encouraged by this new effort by the record companies."

Major record labels include Warner Music Group Corp, Universal Music Group owned by Vivendi SA, EMI and Sony Music Entertainment, part of Sony Corp.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

Entertainment - Web site lets fans sing with the King


NASHVILLE, Tenn. – So you fancy yourself a singer, eh ... alone, in your car, with the windows up, when no one's looking.

Well, now you can test your pipes against Martina McBride and Elvis Presley in private, and if you like what you hear, you can share them with your friends via email.

As a promotion for "Elvis Presley Christmas Duets" album, Sony BMG Music Entertainment has created a Web site that allows you to record "Blue Christmas" as a duet with Presley, singing McBride's part from the album.

The site,, provides a phone number and access code so you can belt out your lines over the phone. If you're pleased with the recording, you can send it in a Christmas ecard.

Or, if you discover you sound more like Alvin and the Chipmunks than Presley and McBride, you can send the album version of the song instead.

The whole thing is free.

"Someone in our digital area came up with the concept," said JJ Rosen, executive vice president of Sony BMG Music Entertainment's Commercial Music Group. "It fits the duets concept of the album so well."

Because the campaign leans heavily on technology, Rosen said it brings Presley and his music to a younger generation. "We're always trying to keep the Elvis brand alive."

The site launched Dec. 5 and has drawn 30,000 people from nine countries. It's scheduled to end sometime in January.

The promotion has been successful enough that Sony plans a similar one for Mariah Carey's upcoming release "The Ballads" for Valentine's Day.

Given Carey's vocal range, it could take some serious chops to keep up.

"Dreamlover" anyone?

India - Father of India's EMI culture says goodbye

Often credited as the person who brought scale to Indian retail banking, KV Kamath, through ICICI Bank, has changed the way Indians bank. Kamath took retail lending to the doorsteps of the Indian household, leading to a boom in demand for consumer durables, realty and automobiles.

He could well be the father of India's EMI culture. At a time when state run banks were very conservative and strict in their lending practices, Kamath saw and exploited the opportunity of providing easy access to loans.

While branding the bank and entering new segments, Kamath, within three years of its entry into the retail finance, turned ICICI Bank into a market leader in retail credit in 2003. His strongest ally in this transformation from a financial institution to a bank: technology.

Technology has been ICICI Bank's biggest growth and profits lever, through which Kamath introduced internet banking to the country and expanded the concept of automated teller machine (ATM) and tele-banking. The bank also has firsts in 100 per cent core banking solution at all its branches and also to the 8 to 8 banking concept (8AM to 8 PM).

Universal banking was Kamath's other major tool to expand beyond banking, as it moved into asset management, brokerage and insurance businesses, once again, becoming one of the leading players there. Through ICICI Securities, Kamath brought stock trading to the individual's personal computer, forcing many broking firms to follow.

Kamath also focused on expanding the bank's wings globally. The journey began in 2003, when the bank opened its representative offices in Singaore, Dubai, China, UK and Canada.

Since then, it has grown and the bank as of today is the leader in money remittance from abroad. With 29 years at ICICI Bank behind him, a dozen of them at the helm, this IIM Ahmedabad graduate was conferred with a trail of awards including the Padma Bhushan (one of the highest civilian honours in the country) in 2008 and Businessman of the Year by Forbes Asia in the previous year.

But along with reaching this leadership across all segments of finance came complaints, with the bank constantly in the news for customer harassment, leading to the courts fining the company repeatedly.

Business - Bush throws lifeline to U.S. automakers

President George W. Bush bailed out U.S. automakers on Friday with $17.4 billion in emergency loans as he sought to stave off a collapse that would have cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Bush, seeking to bolster his legacy and bucking some fellow Republicans who would prefer the car industry to deal with its problems without government aid, said it would be irresponsible in a time of economic crisis to let carmakers die.

The government will offer up to $17.4 billion in loans to the U.S. automakers, reeling from a slump in consumer demand, and expects General Motors and Chrysler LLC to access the money immediately. The White House said the loan agreements had been signed.

Ford Motor Co , the other firm in Detroit's storied Big Three, said its liquidity was adequate for now and it did not need a loan at this point.

"If we were to allow the free market to take its course now, it would almost certainly lead to disorderly bankruptcy and liquidation for the automakers," Bush said, warning that to do nothing would deepen and prolong the U.S. recession.

U.S. stocks rose on the news of the lifeline to the sector, with GM shares jumping 10.9 percent.

The White House moved on its own after Republicans in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress blocked a deal last week. That plan followed weeks of negotiations that included desperate pleas on Capitol Hill from the auto chiefs.

Some $13.4 billion of the total package will be made available in December and January from a $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund originally designed to rescue struggling financial institutions.

Bush attached a string of conditions to the three-year loans and set a deadline of March 31 for the companies to prove they can restructure enough to ensure their survival or have the loans called back.

But the White House opted against a "car czar" proposal that was a cornerstone of the failed bailout efforts in Congress, and handed oversight responsibility to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson instead.

"We don't think that's something that we should impose ... just for 31 days when the next administration may or may not have a different view about how they want to handle it," deputy White House chief of staff Joel Kaplan said.

Democratic President-elect Barack Obama, who takes over from Bush on Jan. 20 and will inherit the handling of the deal, welcomed the loan move as a necessary step. But he said he wanted to make sure workers did not bear the brunt of the restructuring.

"My top priority in this administration is to create 2.5 million new jobs and I want some of those jobs to be in the auto industry," Obama said at a news conference.

Obama has been calling for short-term loans to the sector based on steps toward long-term viability.


Other Democrats and the main auto labor union assailed the deal as unfair, saying workers were going to have to concede too much.

One provision in the loan terms on worker pay brought protests from the United Auto Workers union, and then a change in wording by the U.S. Treasury. The Treasury altered the wording of the terms for automakers to seek reductions in wages and benefits to levels "competitive with" Japanese rivals.

Under wording released earlier in the day, the Treasury said it would require reductions to levels "equal to" average compensation paid per hour and employee by Toyota Motor Corp, Nissan Motor Co and Honda Motor Corp in the United States.

The change was described as a correction of a grammatical error by a Treasury spokeswoman.

GM CEO Rick Wagoner said the company would now focus on fully implementing its restructuring plan and was confident of meeting the government's requirements.

Chrysler, widely seen as the weakest of the Big Three, said concessions would happen quickly and it would continue to undertake "significant cost reductions."

Private equity firm Cerberus said in a statement it would use the first $2 billion of proceeds from Chrysler's auto financing arm, Chrysler Financial, to backstop the government loan allocated to its struggling Chrysler car unit.

Ford, while not seeking an immediate loan under the program, has said it would like a line of credit from the government only to be used if its finances worsen significantly in 2009.

Analysts noted the automakers' woes were far from over.

"It's a lifeline, but it doesn't get them completely out of the woods. It takes them (GM and Chrysler) forward until March. Basically the next administration has to deal with it." said Erich Merkle, an analyst with Crowe Horwath in Michigan.


Some Republicans opposed to bailing out Detroit were dismayed at the loan package.

"I find it unacceptable that we would leave the American taxpayer with a tab of tens of billions of dollars while failing to receive any serious concessions from the industry," said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidential election to Obama on Nov. 4.

The White House presented a dire picture if it did not act, saying that if the auto industry were to collapse, it could reduce U.S. economic growth by more than 1 percent, put about 1.1 million workers out of jobs and cost some $13 billion in new unemployment claims.

Underscoring the damage already done, auto parts maker Federal Mogul Corp said on Friday it was cutting 4,600 jobs.

The loan conditions included limits on executive compensation. Auto companies must pay back all their loans to the government and show their firms can earn a profit and achieve a positive net worth. The automakers would also have to provide warrants for nonvoting stock.


Both GM and Chrysler have said a bankruptcy filing is not an option they would chose because of the risk it would drive more consumers away from their brands. Both have idled plants and laid off thousands of workers across North America.

A bankruptcy filing by one company could topple suppliers and endanger the remaining two companies because of the overlap in their key parts suppliers.

The Treasury said the move to help the automakers had effectively exhausted the initial $350 billion of the Wall Street bailout funds approved by Congress and that it now needed to access the rest of the $700 billion.

The remaining $4 billion in autos aid is contingent on the administration seeking the second half of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, an administration official said.

The loans would have an interest rate of at least 5 percent but could rise to 10 percent if the carmakers default, officials said.

In a ripple from the U.S. auto slump, Mexican conglomerate Alfa said on Friday it was temporarily halting production at its nine auto parts plants in Mexico that supply U.S. carmakers.

No automakers have been spared in the global sales slump.

Japan's Toyota Motor Corp could report its first annual parent-only operating loss in 71 years in the year to end-March, and may issue a profit warning at a scheduled year-end news conference on Monday, Japanese media reported.

Toyota, which declined to comment on the reports, last saw an operating loss in its first year of operation in 1937/38.

Japan's carmakers are also feeling the pinch from a strong yen.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was set to announce an aid package for his country's auto industry on Saturday. That aid could amount to several billion dollars.

(Additional reporting by U.S. autos team and Tokyo bureau)

Business - GourmetCITY awarded "Most Innovative New Concept" in global competition

Mumbai, Dec 18 (ANI/Business Wire India): GourmetCITY, the luxury, food and grocery shopping format from HyperCITY Retail (India) Ltd has been on a winning streak since its launch in September 2008.

The one-of-its kind store has been awarded the "Most Innovative New Concept - Hypermarket and Superstore" at the Planet Retail Innovation Awards 2008, beating US based Walmart's new upscale super-store in Toronto into second place. This award comes close on the heels of GourmetCITY also winning the 'Debutant Retailer of the Year' at the STAR Retailer Awards, held in New Delhi last month.

Speaking on the occasion, HyperCITY's Business Head for Food and Grocery, Ashutosh Chakradeo said: "We are humbled by the international recognition GourmetCITY has received over the last few months. The awards symbolize the successful effort that has been put into the making of another truly world class retail offer from HyperCITY Retail. GourmetCITY provides an epicurean adventure to those looking to experiment with food from around the world."

GourmetCITY has all one needs to make a memorable meal. It is the single destination offering an exotic range of premium products across food and beverages, bakery and confectionery products sourced from around the world. It also provides multiple experience counters ranging from a juice bar, deli counter, olive bar, salad counter, tea and coffee bars, seafood and sushi bar, fresh gourmet meals-to-go, handmade chocolates, to name a few.

All those looking for a Gastronomic experience need to look no further. GourmetCITY is the ultimate stop to 'Discover a world of food'. (ANI)

Entertainment - Bollywood's year of 'wreckoning'

Mumbai, Dec 20 (IANS) Big banners flopped, the global meltdown spelt a cash crunch, the Mumbai terror attack kept audiences away for a while and even the small-budget wonders weren't that wonderful. Bollywood, a part of India's Rs.513 billion ($10.8 billion) entertainment and media industry, tried very hard to rock on in 2008 but had very little to cheer about.

About 125 films hit the screens this year, but except for 'Race', 'Jannat' and 'Rock On', most movies bombed, especially the big-budget, mega starrer ones.

That's not surprising. The ratio of success and failure in Bollywood has for the past many years been 5/6:100 - that is, of 100 movies released in a given year only five or six manage to hit the jackpot.

The year began with the lavish period film 'Jodhaa-Akbar', which had big stars like Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai. Though it accounted for the major business in the first quarter of this year, the Rs.450-million movie was a costly production and it took a long time for UTV to recover the cost.

But Abbas-Mustan's thriller 'Race' and Kunal Deshmukh's film about match fixing, 'Jannat', were declared genuine hits.

Later in the year, director Farhan Akhtar's acting debut, 'Rock On', broke the dry spell. The film not only redefined the parameters of mainstream Hindi cinema, it also brought some respite to the box office - but only in metros.

Much of the year saw the industry suffer a crippling blow with big films like 'Sarkar 2', 'Drona', 'Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic', 'Tashan', 'Krazzy 4' and 'Love Story 2050' falling flat at the box office.

Apart from flops, the industry was hit by the global meltdown and skyrocketing star prices.

Notwithstanding recession that led to cost-cutting becoming the buzzword of the world's biggest film factory, stars continued to charge hefty fees for a movie. Shah Rukh Khan, for instance, charged Rs.150 million plus percentage of profits, while Saif Ali Khan demanded Rs.200 million.

Imran Khan, who was the discovery of the year after 'Jaane Tu....Ya Jaane Na', confessed he was being paid an 'obscene' amount of money to appear at private functions. His second film 'Kidnap' tanked. But there was no rethink on star prices, not even when one of the biggest hits of the year 'Singh Is Kinng' failed to rake in the moolah for distributors and exhibitors.

Distributors said the film was so overpriced on the table that no amount of profits could bring back the investments.

By the end of the year, when 26/11 had served a numbing blow to the entertainment industry, stars were still charging many times the amount they deserved.

Akshay Kumar was paid a hefty amount just to lend his voice and presence to a dubbed Korean animation film called 'Jumbo'.

Does that make any business sense?

Salman Khan had three major flops - 'God Tussi Great Ho', 'Hello' and 'Yuvvraaj'. He was still paid what rock stars generally get in their prime, and not just for taking off their shirt.

The year also witnessed skin show from male actors - Zayed Khan and Vivek Oberoi did it in 'Mission Istaanbul', but it was John Abraham who made beefcake a fashion statement after the successful 'Dostana' where he flaunted his body generously.

Also, myths were being broken in 2008.

It was said female-oriented films don't do well. And yet 'Jodhaa Akbar' and 'Fashion' did good business. Costume dramas and dramas about costumes, they said, didn't work. So why did 'Jodhaa-Akbar' and 'Fashion' click?

The box office failure of small budget films like 'Sorry Bhai!', 'Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye', 'Maharathi' and 'Dil Kabaddi' has broken another myth that small is successful.

It was also the year of terrorism.

Filmmakers of all ilk and hue - from Neeraj Pandey's 'Wednesday' and Nishikant Kamat's 'Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan' to Jagmohan Mundhra's 'Shoot On Sight' and Rajkumar Gupta's 'Aamir' - pulled out all stops to explore the anatomy of terror.

Terror far more real awaited round the corner. And when, after the Nov 26-29 Mumbai terror strike, Ram Gopal Varma paid a fleeting visit to the Taj Mahal and Tower Hotel , he was accused of 'cannibalising carnage'.

The biggest scandal of the year was not Varma's Taj tour, but Shah Rukh and Salman Khan battling it out at Katrina Kaif's birthday party.

Parties and film premieres ceased to be the venue for scandals long ago. Or so we thought. Until the two superstars showed us otherwise.

Hrithik Roshan had his second son this year, while Viveik Oberoi's sister and John Abraham's brother got married.

But no star marriages. None of the high-profile celebrity couples from Preity Zinta-Ness Wadia to Kareena Kapoor-Saif were in a hurry to tie the knot.

Bollwyood also lost two legends this year - B.R. Chopra and Begum Para.

This was the year the blog became a vogue. Amitabh Bachchan showed the way... and before him Shekhar Kapur and Aamir Khan. By the year end, everyone, from Varma to Shilpa Shetty to Karan Johar, was blogging his or her heart out, prompting a section of the industry to wonder when do these guys get a chance to make movies?

Towards the end of the year, Shah Rukh, who was busy with Indian Premier League, made an impressive entry with 'Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi' and it has changed the mood at the box office. He has given both the filmmakers and the audiences something to smile about.

Now trade circles have their hopes pinned on on Aamir Khan's 'Ghajini'.

World - US;US recovery in late 2009: IMF

The US economy looks set to pick up next year or early in 2010, although this scenario is by no means certain, the IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said in a newspaper interview on Thursday. "There is a reasonable probability ... of the US economy starting to recover at the end of 2009 or the start of 2010," he told Spanish newspaper Expansion.

He based this view on the likelihood that the housing market has touched a low point and as demand reacts to fiscal stimuli but added: "We recognize, however that the possibility of a recovery is plagued with uncertainty." If the US housing market continued to fall then deflation could not be ruled out, the former French finance minister said. "We are faced with an abrupt fall in activity and we should use all instruments available with the aim of simultaneously tackling three aims, the first restoring the stability and confidence of national financial markets." He reiterated that the IMF would cut its current 2.2 % forecast for global growth next month.

India - Indian education cheap but professional, say foreign students

New Delhi, Dec 20 (IANS) Many Indian students want to study abroad, paying through their nose in the process. At the same time, students from across the world are filling university seats here for 'cheap, professional and internationally ranked' Indian education.

On an average, about 3,500 students visit India on educational programmes from over 70 countries every year, courtesy the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), one of its officials told IANS.

The ICCR awards 2,000 scholarships to these students every year.

'People from my country come to India because the cost of education here is very low. Besides, India offers really high quality and good education in a very short duration - the courses here do not take that much time to complete and we can go back home and easily get a job,' Jessica Dayal, a special education volunteer from Tanzania, told IANS.

Dayal is in Delhi for a year to learn how to help out children with disabilities.

Sam Kast, anothr Tanzanian, is studying pharmacy at the Jamia Hamdard University: 'India is constantly developing in terms of technology and that is also one reason we want to come here,' he said.

'Pursuing pharmacy back home for me would have taken around eight years and if I'd failed, it might have got stretched to even 12 years. However, in India, it's only for four years and I can do a specialization in the time I'd have taken just to graduate in Tanzania.'

Dody Siregar from Indonesia is majoring in economics from Khalsa College, Delhi University (DU). 'India is much cheaper in education costs compared to studies in the Education University (EU) of Indonesia,' he said.

'It is even more advanced here and easily accessible to outsiders. If we study over here, we get better job opportunities back home or anywhere in the world.'

Hasan Mir Ali, a musician from Uzbekistan studying Indian classical music at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra's college of music and dance, had the same reasons for shifting base.

Nick Mohammad Sultani from Afghanistan, a Bachelor of International Business and Finance (BIBF) student at Jamia Milia Islamia, came here to avoid ending up working in his country.

'Every student in Afghanistan prepares to come to India. In fact, most of the students don't want to work in their own countries; they want to study abroad and serve as a UN member and studying here makes it easier for them,' he said.

But 33-year-old Andre Deamidenko from Moscow, another student at the college of music, had a different reason for coming here.

'Most of our local culture was wiped off during the 70 years of Soviet rule and it is the thirst for culture that brings us here. There is no place to learn it but India. The well-preserved deep roots and the Vedic culture here call us,' he said.

World - US;Chaos at US airports as winter storms strike

Washington, Dec 20 (DPA) Airports were shut down and several hundred flights were cancelled Friday as winter storms swept across the Midwest and northeastern US.

More than 500 flights were cancelled at airports across New York state, and the storm was expected to dump more than 20 centimetres of snow, and later sleet and rain in some areas.

Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport was shut down, and areas in southern Wisconsin received about 30 centimetres of snow.

Snow and ice created havoc at major international airports such as O'Hare International in Chicago and New York's John F. Kennedy International, where flights were at least three hours late. There were also delays reported in Detroit and Philadelphia, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The National Weather Service warned drivers to be prepared for slippery roads and limited visibility. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the city had 193,000 tonnes of salt ready and 2,000 workers clearing snow from the streets.

Forecasters said that the storm was part of the same weather system that brought snow Thursday to Las Vegas, causing the lowest temperatures for 20 years in some areas.

The 10 centimetres of snow that fell late Wednesday on Las Vegas' McCarran airport was the second highest total since 1967 and the highest for the month of December since records began in 1937

Lifestyle - What every woman wants is love

New Delhi, Dec 20 (IANS) A simple recipe to win a woman's heart is to give her loads of love. A recent survey revealed that 77 percent of women believe that their perfect man needs to be romantic and not rich.

'The Indian woman is honest and forthright with her feelings. While the survey reinforces the fact that she still believes in one true love, it also emphasises that she knows her mind, what she wants and knows how to get it,' said ad man Piyush Pandey.

The survey, carried out by cosmetics brand Ponds, also revealed that 56 percent of women believe their true love would be the one who would get along well with her family and just 15 percent of women rate physique as an important quality in their man.

'A woman is expected to blend with her in-laws' family and she does it efficiently. At the same time she also expects her would-be husband to share great bond with her parents and siblings,' Lakme's model Vipasha Aggarwal said.

Still, the most important ingredient of a successful relationship is love and women look for a combination of intelligence, humour, understanding, caring and romance in a man.

According to model-turned-actress Dipannita Sharma, her man should be a diehard romantic, with a good sense of humour and should understand her well and accept her the way she is.

For model Amanpreet Wahi love was the last thing in her mind till it actually happened and now she believes that it was a gift from God.

'It has been five years since I met my man - Raghav Narula. That time love was not my priority, but it just happened and today I feel that he fell in my lap from nowhere and filled my life with happiness,' Wahi told IANS.

'He is a simple man, yet he is special because he knows how to respect a woman and this is his best quality. Apart from this he is fun loving, honest, polite and of course good-looking,' she added.

She fondly remembers the day when Raghav proposed to her on the phone and rates that day as the most romantic day of her life.

Ponds brand ambassador Priyanka Chopra believes that true love will come calling; it is just a matter of time and so one has to be patient.

'I have always believed that true love will find you and so will the right man. Make sure that you do not close your mind to possibilities and do not work on the 'he-must-be-like-this' list,' Chopra said.

Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bansali's 'Hum Dil de Chuke Sanam' had girls swooning over the quiet brooding character played by actor Ajay Devgan - a man who loved his wife to the extent that he willingly took her back to reunite with her first love.

Though it may sound crazy, Rupa Sehgal has a similar tale to share. 'At the time of my marriage I felt dead inside, unable to feel anything for the man whom I was marrying. But in the years that followed I saw my hubby loving me selflessly. From him I learnt that true love never asks for sacrifices, it gives,' Sehgal explained.

Not many women believe in the power of money when it comes to love.

'A rich man may have money to shower his woman with expensive gifts, but if he isn't sensitive enough to know how to woo the lady, his expensive gifts aren't worth anything,' said Suchita Verma.

World - Oil falls over 6 pct on demand outlook

Oil fell over 6 percent on Friday, as fears of economic slowdown weighed heavier than proposed production cuts by the world's major oil exporters. U.S. light crude for January delivery, which expired Friday, settled down $2.35 at $33.87 a barrel, the lowest since Feb. 10, 2004, when it ended at the same level. The more active February contract settled up 69 cents at $42.36 a barrel with cuts in OPEC production expected to take hold in that month. London Brent crude gained 64 cents, settling at $44.00. Friday marks the sixth consecutive day of falls in oil, off more than 29 percent from the $47.98 seen when prices last rose on Dec. 11. Oil prices have fallen more than $100 from their peak above $147 in July as a global economic downturn ripped into global oil demand, and looked set for one of their biggest weekly declines for years. Industry forecasters predict that global oil demand will contract for the first time since 1983. Pledges by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut output by 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd) -- the largest ever reduction by the producer group -- failed to support January prices. "The market is signaling that it is taking a look at the OPEC cut and recognizing that is more likely to be evident in February," said Gene McGillian, analyst at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Connecticut. "The Feb contract has not been able to crack $40 yet, but if inventories and refinery use continue to drop then pressure will resume," he added. However, many traders doubt OPEC, whose third production cut since September has brought its total reduction to more than 4 million bpd or 5 percent of world supply, will fully implement the agreed cuts. "We believe that full implementation of the cuts is unlikely," Goldman Sachs analysts said in a note to clients. OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia's Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, speaking in London on Friday, said the kingdom would be pumping less oil in January and would be at its new output target in line with the group's latest cut.

"BITE THE BULLET" That reassurance appeared to be having some impact on the market in late European trade on Friday. "From a credibility standpoint, OPEC has no choice but to bite the bullet for the next few months," said Jonathan Kornafel, Asia Director of Hudson Capital Energy. "Until traders see a sustained drop-off in the rate of demand destruction, the market will have a hard time establishing a floor." OPEC President Chakib Khelil said on Friday he believed oil prices had found a floor around current levels. "I don't believe there is any reason for it to fall any further. I don't see it going lower," he told Reuters in London.

Entertainment - Cruise, Theron to star in remake of French thriller

LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Tom Cruise will share the screen with South African actress Charlize Theron for an American remake of 2005 French thriller "Antony Zimmer," Hollywood media reported Friday.

Directed by Indian-born Bharat Nalluri, the new version will also be the latest collaboration between Cruise and writer Christopher McQuarrie, tapped to rewrite the script.

McQuarrie co-wrote and produced "Valkyrie," Cruise's latest film set to open on Christmas Day in North America. He is also working on two other post-Valkyrie projects with Cruise, Variety magazine reported naming them as "Flying Tigers" and "The Champions."

Directed by Jerome Salle, the first "Anthony Zimmer" starred Yvan Attal and Sophie Marceau. An ordinary man is chased down by the Russian mafia and international police in a manipulative case of mistaken identity.

World - US;Obama likely to name Dennis Blair as intelligence chief

Washington, Dec 20 (DPA) US president-elect Barack Obama is expected to name retired navy admiral Dennis Blair as his top official for overseeing intelligences agencies.

Blair, 61, served as chief of the US Pacific Command from 1999 to 2002 before retiring and holding positions on company boards and heading a Pentagon-funded think tank. Pacific Command manages all US military operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

If confirmed by the Senate, Blair will become the director of national intelligence, coordinating the espionage and information gathering activities of the nation's 16 intelligence organisations.

Those include the Central Investigative Agency (CIA), the Defence Intelligence Agency and the super secretive National Security Agency, as well as outfits in the army, navy, air force, state department and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Several US media outlets reported Friday that Blair was the pick. But Obama's transition team has not provided a date for any announcement on the decision and the president-elect departs Saturday on vacation in Hawaii.

Blair would also be responsible for providing the president with daily intelligence briefings, usually the first order of business for a president every morning.

By naming Blair, Obama would be taking another step toward filling his senior national security postings. He nominated Senator Hillary Clinton as secretary of state on Dec 1 and announced that Defence Secretary Robert Gates had agreed to stay in the post.

Retired Marine general James Jones will become his national security adviser. Obama has yet to identify his choice to head the CIA.

Obama wants to reform the intelligence community and could bring fresh faces into leadership positions. Many senior experienced candidates could be tainted by allegations that the CIA abused and even tortured suspects in the war on terrorism.

The director of national intelligence, or DNI, was created in 2004 after a commission investigating the Sep 11, 2001, terrorist attacks found the espionage community failed to communicate effectively throughout the various bureaucracies.

Blair, a Rhodes Scholar, would be the third person to hold the job. The former four star admiral began his naval career in 1968 and went on to command several warships. He eventually rose to serve under the joint chiefs of staff and on the National Security Council.

After leaving the navy, Blair became president of the Institute for Defence Analyses, the Pentagon think tank. He stepped down in 2006 after an internal Defence Department inquiry found he should have rescued himself from two studies on the F-22 programme because he served on two company boards involved in the fighter jet.

The Pentagon probe concluded there was a conflict of interest even though it determined Blair did not unduly influence the conclusiongs of the studies. Blair denied any wrongdoing.

Sport - Cricket;Dravid becomes first No. 3 batsman to score 8,000 runs

Mohali, Dec 19 (IANS) Rahul Dravid became the first batsman in the world to aggregate 8,000 runs while batting at number three. He reached the landmark when he was on 20 during his unbeaten 65 in the second Test against England here Friday.

He has an aggregate of 8,045 runs at the end of the first day's play. Close at heels is Australian skipper Ricky Ponting with an aggregate of 7,992 runs.

Dravid's 65 not out is his 60th fifty (19 hundreds and 41 half centuries) while batting at number three, which is a record for most fifties by a batsman batting at number three slot.

Dravid set up an Indian record for most fifties on home soil. His innings is his 24th half century on home soil. He wrested the record from Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar who have 23 half centuries on home soil.

This is Dravid's ninth half century against England. Other batsmen who have more half centuries are: Gavaskar (16), Gundappa Viswanath (12) and Tendulkar (10).

Gautam Gambhir, who scored an unbeaten 106 Friday, became the third Indian batsman to register three or more hundreds in the calendar year 2008. Others are Tendulkar (04) and Virender Sehwag (03).

Gambhir is one of the six opening batsmen who have registered three or more hundreds in the calendar year 2008. Others are: Greame Smith of South Africa (5), Simon Katich of Australia (4), Neil Mckenzie of South Africa (03), Virender Sehwag (3) and Andrew Strauss (3).

Gambhir needs 36 more runs to aggregate 1,000 runs in 2008.

This is Gambhir's fourth Test hundred. The other three were: 139 vs Bangladesh at Chittagong in Dec 2004, 104 vs Australia at Mohali in Oct 2008 and 206 vs Australia at Delhi in Oct 2008.

Dec 19, 2008

Business - GoAir;Groping in the dark

Anjuli Bhargava

I don’t know if any one of you have been following these developments but Mumbai-based low-cost airline GoAir has suddenly taken a U-turn. From being a low-fare, low frills airline, it has out of the blue announced the launch of something called “GoComfort”.

GoComfort — by the airline’s own definition — is a fully flexible premium service providing all the key benefits that an Indian business passenger would need. “It is India’s only low-cost premium service offering business travelers a premium choice over any other low-fare airline”, whatever that means.

The airline says it is adding value by offering telecheck in and return check in, a wider selection of food and seat selection. GoComfort takers have been promised a seat (with increased pitch) in the first four rows of the aircraft (the times of squeezing in to a middle seat are over, according to the company’s official release). It goes on to promise that the middle seat will always be free (an easy enough promise to keep with load factors at an all-time low!).

In addition to the announcement of GoComfort, the airline has launched another series of schemes — GoYouth (targeted at persons below 21), GoSolution (targeted at corporate clients) and a buy 5, get one free offer. It has further announced that it will be increasing the total number of flights on offer to 9 destinations in this winter season from the 832 in October to 900. By March 2009, GoAir says, it is planning to add 18 aircraft to its fleet size (it has six A320s at present) and by March 2011 it has plans to increase its fleet size to 34.

All this appears to be part of its constant strategy — which can best be described as groping in the dark — to reinvent itself. GoAir’s endless announcements don’t convince me enough and I would advise flyers to take their promises with a largish dose of salt.

GoAir — when it was established in June 2004 — was envisaged as a low-fare airline that would commoditise air travel. On 9 June 2005, GoAir announced that it intended to launch operations in October 2005 with a fleet of 20 leased A320 aircraft. Initial flights would be in the southern and western areas of India with the first nine A320s, the remaining 11 aircraft being added in the second year. At that time the airline was in talks with both Airbus and Boeing on the purchase of between 20 and 40 new aircraft, with a contract to be in place by the end of 2005 and with deliveries to start by 2007. None of this ever happened. It did however launch in November 2005.

Then in July 2006, the airline again announced an order for 10 aircraft from the Airbus 320 family (with options for 10 more). This was followed by an announcement in mid-January 2007 that it plans to sell a large minority ownership position to assist it with funds for continued expansion. That investment never happened either.

In the few months that it had flown — and when the industry situation was reasonably rosy compared to what it is today — GoAir failed to establish itself as a credible low-cost option, unlike some of its competitors. IndiGo, for instance, launched later and managed to trounce most other low-cost carriers and established a pretty good reputation for itself, whereas SpiceJet managed to remain a serious contender. GoAir, in fact, was often compared with Air Deccan (which had by then bagged the reputation of being the worst in its category) and was considered just a tad behind Deccan in this regard.

In its defence, those who managed to fly the airline didn’t really have much to complain about (the aircraft was clean, the flight hassle-free, the brand identity chic and staff decent). The maximum noise came from those who had booked with the airline and would, more often than not, find the flight cancelled for some reason or the other, leaving them stranded. Although the airline claimed that its model was based on ‘punctuality, affordability and convenience’, this never translated into customer experience. The ease with which flights were simply cancelled made many believe that it appeared geared more to the convenience of the airline rather than the passengers. As one senior ministry official told me back then: “It may be a smart choice to fly GoAir but it’s a smarter one not to fly GoAir (the airline’s tag line is Fly Smart)”.

However as the industry situation worsened (since mid-2006, things have been grim for the Indian aviation industry), GoAir became more unreliable by the day. This was also partly due to its “flexible fleet management policy”, which its promoter Jeh Wadia said was its way of moderating capacity based on demand. To flyers, it just meant you never know which flight may get cancelled when.

Even today, I find GoAir’s various claims and schemes hard to swallow. To cite one example, the buy 5, get 1 free offer for this winter season is available — for some inexplicable reason — only to those registered on its website (attempts by me to register just to find out the price for this through the website failed as it asks for a PNR number which is hard to provide before one has booked). On further enquiries — from its newly-hired public relations agency — it turned out that the offer gives you one free ticket after you have flown with the carrier five times! Since I am yet to meet or hear of a GoAir frequent flyer, it makes one wonder how many people will be in a position to avail of this one.

In June 2005, when Wadia met me in his Lower Parel office in Mumbai just prior to the launch of his airline — and told me how his airline would change the way Indians travel (it has a 2.3 per cent market share today) — he said: “Every Indian should fly. We are one billion people and only 0.05 per cent of the country flies. Is that a joke or is that a joke?” It is a joke but not — as he may now have realised — a particularly funny one.