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    Thursday, March 26, 2009

    Reuters - U.S. billionaire roars into space history

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    U.S. billionaire roars into space history

    Thursday, Mar 26, 2009 1:0PM UTC

    By Shavkat Rakhmatullayev and Shamil Zhumatov

    BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi roared into space aboard a Russian rocket on Thursday, making history as the first tourist to make the epic journey twice.

    The Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft blasted into the leaden skies from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on schedule at 1149 GMT and is due to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) two days later.

    "We are feeling well. Everything is going well," Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka said in a live feed after take-off, a fluffy white toy hanging above the crew in the cabin.

    Hungarian-born Simonyi, 60, who made much of his fortune developing software at Microsoft, traveled into space in the cramped interior of the Soyuz rocket alongside Padalka and U.S. astronaut Michael Barratt.

    At an observation post near the launch pad, Simonyi's 28-year-old Swedish wife Lisa Persdotter burst into tears and hugged her relatives as the rocket flashed through the sky and gradually disappeared from view.

    His friends, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, opened bottles of champagne and cheered as loudspeakers at Baikonur announced the blast-off had been successful.

    A spokesman for Russian mission control said the rocket had safely reached its targeted orbit. "They are now in orbit. Everything is going well," the spokesman said.

    Simonyi, who paid a total of $60 million for his two space trips, has said he will hang up his space suit for good after this last trek.

    "I cannot fly for the third time because I have just married and I have to spend time with my family," Simonyi told a pre-flight news briefing from behind a sealed glass partition.

    He is set to return to earth on April 7 with Michael Fincke, U.S. commander of outgoing Expedition 18, and Russian flight engineer Yuri Lonchakov.

    "He is in great spirits, he is very excited. He feels very privileged to be able to go into space again," said Eric Anderson, head of Space Adventures which arranges space trips.

    Russia has borne the brunt of sending crews and cargo to the multinational ISS since the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing its crew of seven.

    A source in Russia's space industry told Reuters two space tourists could be launched in 2011. He gave no further details.

    Space Adventures admitted its business had been affected by the global financial crisis. "The number of billionaires has been cut in half," Anderson told Reuters, but added that demand for space trips appeared to be stable for now.

    "It's a very long-term thing," he said. "You don't just wake up in the morning one day and decide to go into space."

    (Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow, writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Tim Pearce)

    Reuters - U.S. economy shrinks, profits plunge in Q4

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    U.S. economy shrinks, profits plunge in Q4

    Thursday, Mar 26, 2009 1:26PM UTC

    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. economy shrank at its fastest pace since 1982 in the fourth quarter and corporate profits plunged a record $120.1 billion, pulled down by falling consumer spending and exports, government data showed on Thursday.

    In another snapshot of the ailing economy, the number of workers collecting state unemployment benefits rose to a record 5.56 million earlier this month, while new claims climbed to 652,000 last week, a separate government report showed.

    "I think people realize the economy seemingly fell off the cliff in the fourth quarter and continued in the first quarter this year. The question now is will you see a moderation in bad news?" said Doug Bender, managing director at McQueen, Ball & Associates in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

    U.S. equity index futures pared gains after data, while U.S. government bond prices and the dollar were little changed.

    Gross domestic product, which measures the total output of goods and services within U.S. borders, fell at an annual rate of 6.3 percent in the October-December quarter, the steepest decline since the first quarter of 1982, the Commerce Department said.

    The government last month estimated the fall in fourth-quarter GDP at 6.2 percent and the modest revisions to the output estimates reflected adjustments to business inventories and investment figures.

    The economy expanded 1.1 percent in 2008, the smallest advance since 2001, after growing 2.0 percent in the prior year, the department said.

    Private business inventories were revised to show a $25.8 billion decline, previously reported as a $19.9 billion fall, as business responded to the slump in demand by cutting output.

    Business investment, which is typically made when companies are planning production increases, fell at a 21.7 percent rate, the biggest fall since the first quarter of 1975, from a previously estimated 21.1 percent contraction. Residential investment fell 22.8 percent in the fourth quarter.

    "Investment is down big time, and that will be down in the current quarter, so that is not going to help," said Kurt Karl, head of economic research at Swiss Re in New York.

    "Going forward, the only positive light in the short term is going to be the consumer, and eventually that will turn the corner for us but it won't be enough this quarter to turn the corner," he said.

    Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of domestic economic activity, dropped a 4.3 percent rate, unchanged from last month's estimates.

    Exports were down 23.6 percent, also unrevised from last month's report.

    The department said corporate profits after taxes plummeted by a record $120.1 billion in the fourth quarter. The 10.7 percent drop was the biggest decline since the first quarter of 1994.

    A separate report from the Labor Department showed the number of workers collecting state unemployment benefits surged 122,000 during the week ended March 14, from 5.44 million the prior week.

    That pushed the insured unemployment rate to 4.2 percent from 4.1 percent the prior week, the highest since May 1983.

    The four-week moving average for new claims, considered to be a better gauge of underlying trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell to 649,000 from a revised 650,000 the week ended March 14.

    It was the first drop in that series after nine weeks of rises.

    (Additional reporting by Doug Palmer in Washington and John Parry in New York, Editing by Andrea Ricci)

    CNN - Commentary: No job? Create your own!

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    Commentary: No job? Create your own!

    Madame Alexander was one of the great innovators in the doll industry.

    According to the company that bears her name, she made the first doll with moving eyelids, the first doll based on a licensed character (Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind), the first doll fashioned after a living person (Queen Elizabeth) and many others.

    But what's most interesting is how and why the company got started.

    Beatrice Alexander's father owned the first doll "hospital" in New York City, where broken porcelain dolls were sent to be repaired. That got her thinking. Maybe porcelain wasn't the best material for a doll. So she sat around her kitchen table with her four sisters, and they started a business sewing dolls out of cloth.

    Theirs were not the only cloth dolls (Raggedy Anne was already popular), but they created a Red Cross doll, a smart choice so soon after World War I. She put all the dolls in a big suitcase and lugged them around to local mom and pop stores where she made small sales.

    No bank would lend to her; she was a 20-something woman in the early 1900s, a poor risk. So she scraped together what she could and just started. Eventually, she found someone who was willing to loan her $1,600, which she paid back in half the time she was allotted.

    After four years of dragging that suitcase door to door, she got her first big break: a big sale to FAO Schwarz.

    Forbes magazine recently profiled the most popular toys of the past 100 years, and Madame Alexander topped the list from the 1920s. It beat the yo-yo.

    There's a lesson here for us. We've lost 4.4 million jobs since the economic mess started. And many of those jobs aren't coming back. John Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia, told The New York Times, "There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations. Firms are making strategic decisions that they don't want to be in their businesses."

    At this point, outplacement is just a bad bet. There is no place to be placed. Companies aren't hiring, they're firing.

    And when eventually they do emerge from this recession, those companies that are still solvent won't rehire to previous levels. Over the years, companies have gotten leaner as employees have gotten more productive. And they won't rehire as much when times improve because they'll want to keep their profit margins high. It's quite possible that the age of big business tending to thousands of workers is coming to a close.

    Looking for a job might make you feel better, but it won't pay your mortgage. Don't waste your time looking for a job that isn't there.

    There is another way. It's the great opportunity of our time. For many people, it's the only one. And it might actually make you happier than you were at the old job.

    Start a business.

    Wait, hold on. Before you get all angry at how out of touch I am, hear me out.

    In a New York Times article, "Weary of Looking for Work, Some Create Their Own," Ryan Kuder who started a Web design company after unsuccessfully looking for work for months said, "It's probably easier right now to find a problem, solve it and charge people than it is to find a job."

    Easier doesn't mean easy or painless. Any way you cut it, these are terrifying times we live in. And starting a company is a risky proposition. But this is one time when looking for a job might be riskier.

    A friend of mine, Ben Dubrovsky, recently laid off from his technology job in Boston, Massachusetts, shared with me an idea he's trying at his local synagogue. He's pulling a group of people together to brainstorm business ideas that leverage their skills, talents, passions and experience.

    "We're not looking for a trillion dollar return. We're looking for sustainable employment. Jobs that will give people an ongoing living, not companies as a vehicle for creating empires," he said to me.

    Then they'll look to their synagogue community for advice, contacts or investment. Perhaps even a synagogue-based micro-finance bank where small loans could help start these businesses -- businesses driven by passion.

    Brilliant. Ben's idea can translate to any community where people trust and care for each other. There are an estimated 400,000 churches in the United States.

    Imagine if each one could generate 10 jobs; that would be 4,000,000 jobs -- roughly the same number that President Obama is looking for out of the stimulus at a fraction of the cost. If you think that's unrealistic, imagine we got half that. Or even a quarter. Insane? Maybe. But it just might work.

    Don't wait until you come up with the perfect idea.

    You'll be better off if you work out the kinks as you face them. Just get started. And this is the perfect time to start a new business. Marketing costs are way down because of the Internet and less competition. And as I wrote in a recent article about the new economy, small companies are replacing big ones because we trust people more than companies.

    Just ask Howie Jacobson, author of "Adwords for Dummies," who started his Internet marketing business during the last downturn.

    He told me the entrepreneurs he knows all seem to be doing pretty well in this economy. They don't have huge infrastructures to support. They don't need to sell a million widgets just to stay in business. They're comfortable with modest profits that sustain their lifestyles. How are you surviving in this economy?

    Madame Alexander had a wise model for finding work. She started a business doing work she loved, with people she loved, solving a problem others were willing to pay money to have solved. It was a small company that took very little investment but gave her and others meaningful, sustainable work.

    In other words, start a business in your kitchen with your sisters.

    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bregman.

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