Wall Street ends sour week with 5th straight decline

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks fell for a fifth straight day on Friday, dropping 1 percent and marking the S&P 500's longest losing streak in three months as the federal government edged closer to the "fiscal cliff" with no solution in sight.

President Barack Obama and top congressional leaders met at the White House to work on a solution for the draconian debt-reduction measures set to take effect beginning next week. Stocks, which have been influenced by little else than the flood of fiscal cliff headlines from Washington in recent days, extended losses going into the close with the Dow Jones industrial average and the S&P 500 each losing 1 percent, after reports that Obama would not offer a new plan to Republicans. The Dow closed below 13,000 for the first time since December 4.

"I was stunned Obama didn't have another plan, and that's absolutely why we sold off," said Mike Shea, managing partner at Direct Access Partners LLC in New York. "He's going to force the House to come to him with something different. I think that's a surprise. The entire market is disappointed in a lack of leadership in Washington."

In a sign of investor anxiety, the CBOE Volatility Index <.vix>, known as the VIX, jumped 16.69 percent to 22.72, closing at its highest level since June. Wall Street's favorite fear barometer has risen for five straight weeks, surging more than 40 percent over that time.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 158.20 points, or 1.21 percent, to 12,938.11 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> lost 15.67 points, or 1.11 percent, to 1,402.43. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> fell 25.59 points, or 0.86 percent, to end at 2,960.31.

For the week, the Dow fell 1.9 percent. The S&P 500 also lost 1.9 percent for the week, marking its worst weekly performance since mid-November. The Nasdaq finished the week down 2 percent. In contrast, the VIX jumped 22 percent for the week.

Pessimism continued after the market closed, with stock futures indicating even steeper losses. S&P 500 futures dropped 26.7 points, or 1.9 percent, eclipsing the decline seen in the regular session.

All 10 S&P 500 sectors fell during Friday's regular trading, with most posting declines of 1 percent, but energy and material shares were among the weakest of the day, with both groups closely tied to the pace of growth.

An S&P energy sector index <.gspe> slid 1.8 percent, with Exxon Mobil down 2 percent at $85.10, and Chevron Corp off 1.9 percent at $106.45. The S&P material sector index <.gspm> fell 1.3 percent, with U.S. Steel Corp down 2.6 percent at $23.03.

Decliners outnumbered advancers by a ratio of slightly more than 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, while on the Nasdaq, two stocks fell for every one that rose.

"We've been whipsawing around on low volume and rumors that come out on the cliff," said Eric Green, senior portfolio manager at Penn Capital Management in Philadelphia, who helps oversee $7 billion in assets.

With time running short, lawmakers may opt to allow the higher taxes and across-the-board federal spending cuts to go into effect and attempt to pass a retroactive fix soon after the new year. Standard & Poor's said an impasse on the cliff wouldn't affect the sovereign credit rating of the United States.

"We're not as concerned with January 1 as the market seems to be," said Richard Weiss, senior money manager at American Century Investments, in Mountain View, California. "Things will be resolved, just maybe not on a good timetable, and any deal can easily be retroactive."

Trading volume was light throughout the holiday-shortened week, with just 4.46 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT on Friday, below the daily average so far this year of about 6.48 billion shares. On Monday, the U.S. stock market closed early for Christmas Eve, and the market was shut on Tuesday for Christmas. Many senior traders were absent this week for the holidays.

Highlighting Wall Street's sensitivity to developments in Washington, stocks tumbled more than 1 percent on Thursday after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned that a deal was unlikely before the deadline. But late in the day, stocks nearly bounced back when the House said it would hold an unusual Sunday session to work on a fiscal solution.

Positive economic data failed to alter the market's mood.

The National Association of Realtors said contracts to buy previously owned U.S. homes rose in November to their highest level in 2-1/2 years, while a report from the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago showed business activity in the U.S. Midwest expanded in December.

"Economic reports have been very favorable, and once Congress comes to a resolution, the market should resume an upward trend, based on the data," said Weiss, who helps oversee about $125 billion in assets. "All else being equal, we see any further decline as a buying opportunity."

Barnes & Noble Inc rose 4.3 percent to $14.97 after the top U.S. bookstore chain said British publisher Pearson Plc had agreed to make a strategic investment in its Nook Media subsidiary. But Barnes & Noble also said its Nook business will not meet its previous projection for fiscal year 2013.

Shares of magicJack VocalTec Ltd jumped 10.3 percent to $17.95 after the company gave a strong fourth-quarter outlook and named Gerald Vento president and chief executive, effective January 1.

The U.S.-listed shares of Canadian drugmaker Aeterna Zentaris Inc surged 13.8 percent to $2.47 after the company said it had reached an agreement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on a special protocol assessment by the FDA for a Phase 3 registration trial in endometrial cancer with AEZS-108 treatment.

(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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NHL makes new offer; lockout enters critical stage

NEW YORK (AP) — The NHL made a new offer to the players' association, hoping to spark talks toward ending the long lockout and saving the hockey season.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Friday the league presented its proposal Thursday and was waiting for a response. The sides haven't met in person since a second round of talks with a federal mediator broke down Dec. 13.

The lockout has reached its 104th day, and the NHL said it doesn't want a season of less than 48 games. That means a deal would need to be reached mid-January.

"We delivered to the union a new, comprehensive proposal for a successor CBA," Daly said in a statement Friday. "We are not prepared to discuss the details of our proposal at this time. We are hopeful that once the union's staff and negotiating committee have had an opportunity to thoroughly review and consider our new proposal, they will share it with the players. We want to be back on the ice as soon as possible."

A person familiar with key points of the offer told The Associated Press that the league proposed raising the limit of individual free-agent contracts to six years from five — seven years if a team re-signs its own player; raising the salary variance from one year to another to 10 percent, up from 5 percent; and one compliance buyout for the 2013-14 season that wouldn't count toward a team's salary cap but would be included in the overall players' share of income.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the new offer were not being discussed publicly.

The NHL maintained the deferred payment amount of $300 million it offered in its previous proposal, an increase from an earlier offer of $211 million. The initial $300 million offer was pulled off the table after negotiations broke off earlier this month.

The latest proposal is for 10 years, running through the 2021-22 season, with both sides having the right to opt out after eight years.

A conference call with the players' association's negotiating committee and its executive board was scheduled for Friday afternoon and was expected to last several hours.

The lockout has reached a critical stage, threatening to shut down a season for the second time in eight years. All games through Jan. 14, plus the Winter Classic and the All-Star game already have been called off. The next round of cuts could claim the entire schedule.

The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.

It is still possible this dispute could eventually be settled in the courts if the sides can't reach a deal on their own.

The NHL filed a class-action suit this month in U.S. District Court in New York in an effort to show its lockout is legal. In a separate move, the league filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, contending bad-faith bargaining by the union.

Those moves were made because the players' association took steps toward potentially filing a "disclaimer of interest," which would dissolve the union and make it a trade association. That would allow players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL.

Union members voted overwhelmingly to give their board the power to file the disclaimer by Jan. 2. If that deadline passes, another authorization vote could be held to approve a later filing.

Negotiations between the NHL and the union have been at a standstill since talks ended Dec. 6. One week later, the sides convened again with federal mediators in New Jersey, but still couldn't make progress.

The sides have been unable to reach agreement on the length of the new deal, the length of individual player contracts, and the variance in salary from year to year. The NHL is looking for an even split of revenues with players.

The NHL pulled all previous offers off the table after the union didn't agree to terms on its last proposal without negotiation.

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San Diego Zoo’s Panda Cub Has a Ball

Life at the zoo can be a ball, literally.

The belle of the ball at the San Diego Zoo on Thursday was Xiao Liwu, the newest addition to the zoo’s panda family, who was captured on camera enjoying a slew of new toys, including a plastic ball.

“He was really enjoying hugging it, rolling on it and doing those kinds of rolly, tumbling things that panda cubs are so notoriously cute for doing,” veterinarian Beth Bicknese said in a video on the zoo’s website.

READ MORE: Panda Cub Opens Eyes at San Diego Zoo

The ball wasn’t all fun and games for Xiao Liwu, however, as it was used, along with a stick of bamboo and a plastic ring shaped like a doughnut, at his most recent checkup to test his coordination, growth and development.

The good news? Xiao Liwu, who was born at the zoo in July, passed his exam – comprised of 10 to 15 measurements, according to the zoo – with flying colors.

‘Everything looks good he’s still a little on the smaller side but overall he’s in good body condition, everything’s growing, his teeth are coming in,’ Meg Sutherland-Smith, the zoo’s associate director of veterinary services, said after the exam.

Xiao Liwu, whose name, which means “little gift,” was chosen in an online poll, weighed just four pounds when he became the sixth panda cub born at the zoo under a 12-year agreement with China that included the loan of two giant pandas. At his exam on Thursday, his 19 th since his birth, the 20-week-old cub weighed in at 14.5 pounds.

Zoo officials are waiting to put Xiao Liwu on public display at the zoo until he develops the “bear behavior” of following his mother and being a better climber, according to Bicknese.

Until then, Xiao Liwu’s fans can still keep track of the playful cub online with the zoo’s panda cam, a live stream that has documented the cub’s nearly every movement since his birth.

To watch the baby panda’s latest veterinary exam, click here.

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2013: A year for big issues in the courts

By Jeffrey Toobin, CNN Senior Legal Analyst

December 27, 2012 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)

Chief Justice John Roberts re-administers the oath of office to Barack Obama at the White House on January 21, 2009.


  • Jeffrey Toobin: 2013 will see pivotal decisions in several key areas of law

  • He says Supreme Court could decide fate of same-sex marriage

  • Affirmative action for public college admissions is also on Court's agenda

  • Toobin: Newtown massacre put gun control debate back in the forefront

Editor's note: Jeffrey Toobin is a senior legal analyst for CNN and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, where he covers legal affairs. He is the author of "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court."

(CNN) -- What will we see in 2013?

One thing for sure: The year will begin with Chief Justice John Roberts and President Obama getting two chances to recite the oath correctly.

Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin

After that, here are my guesses.

1. Same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court. There are two cases, and there are a Rubik's Cube-worth of possibilities for their outcomes. On one extreme, the court could say that the federal government (in the Defense of Marriage Act) and the states can ban or allow same-sex marriage as they prefer. On the other end, the Court could rule that gay people have a constitutional right to marry in any state in the union. (Or somewhere in between.)

CNN Opinion contributors weigh in on what to expect in 2013. What do you think the year holds in store? Let us know @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion

2. The future of affirmative action. In a case pending before the Supreme Court, the Court could outlaw all affirmative action in admissions at public universities, with major implications for all racial preferences in all school or non-school settings.

3. Gun control returns to the agenda. The Congress (and probably some states) will wrestle with the question of gun control, an issue that had largely fallen off the national agenda before the massacre in Newtown. Expect many invocations (some accurate, some not) of the Second Amendment.

4. The continued decline of the death penalty. Death sentences and executions continue to decline, and this trend will continue. Fear of mistaken executions (largely caused by DNA exonerations) and the huge cost of the death penalty process will both accelerate the shift.

5. Celebrity sex scandal. There will be one. There will be outrage, shock and amusement. (Celebrity to be identified later.)

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Toobin.

Part of complete coverage on

December 28, 2012 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)

Aaron Carroll says most of the changes in 2013 will be in preparation for 2014 when the Affordable Care Act really kicks into effect.

December 28, 2012 -- Updated 1351 GMT (2151 HKT)

Don't look for dramatic change in the troubled politics of the Middle East, says Aaron Miller.

December 28, 2012 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)

Sheril Kirshenbaum says natural gas fracking, climate change and renewables are likely to drive discussions of energy in the new year.

December 28, 2012 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)

Former CIA director Michael Hayden says the controversy over the film is one of two Washington debates in which politics obscures the real role of intelligence agencies.

December 28, 2012 -- Updated 1344 GMT (2144 HKT)

Even for someone who has written more than 2,000 columns over the last 20 years, sometimes the words come out wrong, says Ruben Navarrette.

Get the latest opinion and analysis from CNN's columnists and contributors.

December 28, 2012 -- Updated 0307 GMT (1107 HKT)

Kerry Cahill and Keely Vanacker, whose father was shot dead at Fort Hood, say the nation must address problems that lead to massacres.

December 27, 2012 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon says it's vital that the withdrawal of NATO forces by 2014 doesn't endanger the progress Afghan women have made.

December 27, 2012 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)

Jeffrey Toobin says key rulings will likely be made regarding same-sex marriage and affirmative action for public college admissions.

December 28, 2012 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)

Frida Ghitis says that after years in which conservative views dominated the nation, there's now majority support for many progressive stances.

December 28, 2012 -- Updated 0316 GMT (1116 HKT)

John MacIntosh says gun manufacturer Freedom Group should be acquired by public-spirited billionaires and turned into a company with ethical goals.

December 26, 2012 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)

Dean Obeidallah says "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Promised Land" present hot button issues that fire up people from the left and right.

December 22, 2012 -- Updated 1706 GMT (0106 HKT)

David Gergen says the hope for cooperation is gone in the capital as people spar over fiscal cliff, gun control, and nominations

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Syria opposition leader rejects Moscow invitation

ALEPPO PROVINCE, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's opposition leader has rejected an invitation from Russia for peace talks, dealing another blow to international hopes that diplomacy can be resurrected to end a 21-month civil war.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad's main international protector, said on Friday it had sent an invitation for a visit to Moaz Alkhatib, whose six-week-old National Coalition opposition group has been recognized by most Western and Arab states as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people.

But in an interview on Al Jazeera television, Alkhatib said he had already ruled out such a trip and wanted an apology from Moscow for its support for Assad.

"We have clearly said we will not go to Moscow. We could meet in an Arab country if there was a clear agenda," he said.

"Now we also want an apology from (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov because all this time he said that the people will decide their destiny, without foreign intervention. Russia is intervening and meanwhile all these massacres of the Syrian people have happened, treated as if they were a picnic."

"If we don't represent the Syrian people, why do they invite us?" Alkhatib said. "And if we do represent the Syrian people why doesn't Russia respond and issue a clear condemnation of the barbarity of the regime and make a clear call for Assad to step down? This is the basic condition for any negotiations."

With the rebels advancing steadily over the second half of 2012, diplomats have been searching for months for signs that Moscow's willingness to protect Assad is faltering.

So far Russia has stuck to its position that rebels must negotiate with Assad's government, which has ruled since his father seized power in a coup 42 years ago.

"I think a realistic and detailed assessment of the situation inside Syria will prompt reasonable opposition members to seek ways to start a political dialogue," Lavrov said on Friday.

That was immediately dismissed by the opposition: "The coalition is ready for political talks with anyone ... but it will not negotiate with the Assad regime," spokesman Walid al-Bunni told Reuters. "Everything can happen after the Assad regime and all its foundations have gone. After that we can sit down with all Syrians to set out the future."


Russia says it is behind the efforts of U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, fresh from a five-day trip to Damascus where he met Assad. Brahimi, due in Moscow for talks on Saturday, is touting a months-old peace plan for a transitional government.

That U.N. plan was long seen as a dead letter, foundering from the outset over the question of whether the transitional body would include Assad or his allies. Brahimi's predecessor, Kofi Annan, quit in frustration shortly after negotiating it.

But with rebels having seized control of large sections of the country in recent months, Russia and the United States have been working with Brahimi to resurrect the plan as the only internationally recognized diplomatic negotiating track.

Russia's Middle East envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who announced the invitation to Alkhatib, said further talks were scheduled between the "three B's" - himself, Brahimi and U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns.

Speaking in Damascus on Thursday, Brahimi called for a transitional government with "all the powers of the state", a phrase interpreted by the opposition as potentially signaling tolerance of Assad remaining in some ceremonial role.

But such a plan is anathema to the surging rebels, who now believe they can drive Assad out with a military victory, despite long being outgunned by his forces.

"We do not agree at all with Brahimi's initiative. We do not agree with anything Brahimi says," Colonel Abdel-Jabbar Oqaidi, who heads the rebels' military council in Aleppo province, told reporters at his headquarters there.

Oqaidi said the rebels want Assad and his allies tried in Syria for crimes. Assad himself says he will stay on and fight to the death if necessary.

In the rebel-held town of Kafranbel, demonstrators held up cartoons showing Brahimi speaking to a news conference with toilet bowls in front of him, in place of microphones. Banners denounced the U.N. envoy with obscenities in English.


Diplomacy has largely been irrelevant to the conflict so far, with Western states ruling out military intervention like the NATO bombing that helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year, and Russia and China blocking U.N. action against Assad.

Meanwhile, the fighting has grown fiercer and more sectarian, with rebels mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority battling Assad's government and allied militia dominated by his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Still, Western diplomats have repeatedly touted signs of a change in policy from Russia, which they hope could prove decisive, much as Moscow's withdrawal of support for Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic heralded his downfall a decade ago.

Bogdanov said earlier this month that Assad's forces were losing ground and rebels might win the war, but Russia has since rowed back, with Lavrov last week reiterating Moscow's position that neither side could win through force.

Still, some Moscow-based analysts see the Kremlin coming to accept it must adapt to the possibility of rebel victory.

"As the situation changes on the battlefield, more incentives emerge for seeking a way to stop the military action and move to a phase of political regulation," said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Meanwhile, on the ground the bloodshed that has killed some 44,000 people continues unabated. According to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, 150 people were killed on Thursday, a typical toll as fighting has escalated in recent months.

Government war planes bombarded the town of Assal al-Ward in the Qalamoun district of Damascus province for the first time, killing one person and wounding dozens, the observatory said.

In Aleppo, Syria's northern commercial hub, clashes took place between rebel fighters and army forces around an air force intelligence building in the Zahra quarter, a neighborhood that has been surrounded by rebels for weeks.

(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Dominic Evans in Beirut and Steve Gutterman and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Wall Street rebounds on House session, but off for 4th day

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks fell for a fourth day on Thursday, but recovered most of their losses after the House of Representatives, in the barest sign of progress, said it would come back to work on avoiding the "fiscal cliff" this weekend.

It was a jittery session for stocks, with shares falling more than 1 percent after Senate Majority Harry Reid warned a deal was unlikely before the deadline, only to rebound merely on the news that the House would reconvene Sunday, a day before the December 31 "cliff" deadline.

"There's no conviction in the move or the overall market, based on the across-the-board reduction we've seen in volume ... but there will be continued weakness until there's sustained positive direction coming from our leaders," said Joseph Cangemi, managing director at ConvergEx Group, in New York.

The market has been prone to quick reactions to headlines and those moves have sometimes seemed more dramatic because of reduced trading volume. About 5.18 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and the NYSE MKT, well below the daily average so far this year of about 6.48 billion shares.

Investors are looking for any hint that lawmakers will avert the $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts that will start to take effect next week and could push the U.S. economy into recession.

"Markets turned around in a heartbeat, as the House session is the first announcement of anything getting done," said Randy Bateman, chief investment officer of Huntington Asset Management, in Columbus, Ohio, which oversees $14.5 billion in assets. "I'm not convinced it will result in a deal, but you could get enough concessions by both parties to at least avoid the immediacy of going over the cliff."

In a sign of the anxiety, the CBOE Volatility Index <.vix>, or VIX, rose above 20 for the first time since July, suggesting rising worries, but ended up finishing the day down 0.4 percent as the stock market rebounded.

Stocks in the materials and the financial sectors, which are more vulnerable to the economy's performance, bore the brunt of the selling before recovering. Shares of Bank of America fell 0.6 percent to $11.47 while Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold fell 0.7 percent to $33.68.

Some of 2012's biggest gainers bucked the broader trend and rallied, a sign of year-end "window dressing." Expedia Inc was the S&P 500's top percentage gainer, climbing 4.1 percent to $60.30. The price of the online travel agency's stock has doubled this year.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> slipped 18.28 points, or 0.14 percent, to 13,096.31 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> declined 1.73 points, or 0.12 percent, to end at 1,418.10. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> dropped 4.25 points, or 0.14 percent, to close at 2,985.91.

Marvell Technology Group fell 3.5 percent to $7.14 after it said it would seek to overturn a jury's finding of patent infringement. The stock had fallen more than 10 percent in the previous session after a jury found the company infringed on patents held by Carnegie Mellon University and ordered the chipmaker to pay $1.17 billion in damages.

The four-day decline marked the S&P 500's longest losing streak in three months. The index has lost 1.8 percent over the period as investors grapple with the possibility that a deal may not be reached until next year.

President Barack Obama arrived back in Washington from Hawaii to restart stalled negotiations with Congress. House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders were to hold a conference call with Republican lawmakers. The expectation was that lawmakers would be told to get back to Washington quickly if the Senate passed a bill.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced the first of a series of measures that should push back the date when the U.S. government will hit its legal borrowing authority - a limit known as the debt ceiling - by about two months.

Economic data seemed to confirm worries about the impact of the fiscal cliff on the economy.

The Conference Board, an industry group, said its index of consumer confidence in December fell to 65.1 as the budget crisis dented growing optimism about the economy. The gauge fell more than expected from 71.5 in November.

However, the job market continues to mend. Initial claims for unemployment benefits dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000 last week and the four-week moving average fell to the lowest since March 2008.

Decliners outnumbered advancers on the New York Stock Exchange by a ratio of about 8 to 7, while on the Nasdaq, about 14 stocks fell for every 11 that rose.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Net loss: Brooklyn fires coach Avery Johnson

NEW YORK (AP) — Coach of the month in November, out of a job by New Year's.

The Brooklyn Nets have elevated expectations this season, and a .500 record wasn't good enough. Coach Avery Johnson was fired Thursday, his team having lost 10 of 13 games after a strong start to its first season in Brooklyn.

"We don't have the same fire now than we did when we were 11-4," general manager Billy King said at a news conference in East Rutherford, N.J. "I tried to talk to Avery about it and we just can't figure it out. The same pattern kept on happening."

Assistant P.J. Carlesimo will coach the Nets on an interim basis, starting Friday night with a home game against Charlotte. King said the Nets might reach out to other candidates, but for now the job was Carlesimo's. The GM wouldn't comment on a report that the team planned to get in touch with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

King said the decision to dismiss Johnson was made by ownership after a phone discussion Thursday morning. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov had expressed faith in Johnson before the season.

"With the direction we were going we felt we had to make a change," King said.

Johnson was in the final year of a three-year, $12 million contract.

"It's a really disappointing day for me and my family. It's my wife's birthday. It's not a great birthday gift," Johnson said. "I didn't see this coming. But this is ownership's decision. It's part of the business. Fair or unfair, it's time for a new voice and hopefully they'll get back on track."

The Nets have fallen well behind the first-place New York Knicks, the team they so badly want to compete with in their new home. But after beating the Knicks in their first meeting Nov. 26, probably the high point of Johnson's tenure, the Nets went 5-10 and frustrations have been mounting.

"Our goal is to get to the conference finals," King said. "We started out good and then we stumbled. We have to get back to playing winning basketball. It's the entire team. It's not like golf, where Tiger Woods can blame the caddie. It takes five guys on the court and they're all struggling. We have to figure out the ways to get back to winning. I don't know what happened. I'm not sure. But unfortunately, it did happen."

The Nets were embarrassed by Boston on national TV on Christmas, then were routed by Milwaukee 108-93 on Wednesday night for their fifth loss in six games.

Star guard Deron Williams recently complained about Johnson's offense, and Nets CEO Brett Yormark took to Twitter after the loss to Celtics to voice his displeasure with the performance.

King said the change was not made because Williams was unhappy, and he added the point guard himself has to play better.

Johnson also stood by Williams.

"From Day One, I always had a really good relationship with him. I don't think it's fair for anyone to hang this on Deron," Johnson said. "We were just going through a bad streak, a bad spell. It's not time for me to be down on one player. That would be the easy way."

Brooklyn started the season 11-4, winning five in a row to end November, when Johnson was Eastern Conference coach of the month. But he couldn't do anything to stop this slump, one the Nets never anticipated after a $350 million summer spending spree they believed would take them toward the top of their conference.

Johnson has been the Nets' coach for a little more than two seasons. He went 60-116 with the Nets, who moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn to start the season. Johnson coached the Dallas Mavericks to a spot in the NBA Finals in 2006.

"You don't always get a fair shake as a coach," Johnson said. "I'm not the owner. If I were the owner, I wouldn't have fired myself today. But life is not always necessary fair. It's a business and in this business, the coach always gets blamed."

This is the NBA's second coaching change this season following the dismissal of Mike Brown by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Johnson arrived in New Jersey with a 194-70 record, a .735 winning percentage that was the highest in NBA history, but had little chance of success in his first two seasons while the Nets focused all their planning on the move to Brooklyn.

They looked to make a splash this summer when they re-signed Williams and fellow starters Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, traded for Atlanta All-Star Joe Johnson, and added veteran depth with players such as Reggie Evans, C.J. Watson and Andray Blatche.

Johnson didn't have a contract beyond this season but seemed to have the confidence of Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who before the season said he had faith in "the Avery defense system."

Some thought the Nets would finish as high as second in the East behind defending champion Miami, and the predictions seemed warranted when the Nets started quickly amid much fanfare. But all the good publicity faded in recent weeks once the losing started.

Williams, who has struggled this season, stirred the waters when he expressed his preference for the offense he ran under Jerry Sloan in Utah before a loss to the Jazz. Williams and Johnson, nicknamed "Brooklyn's Backcourt" and expected to be one of the best in the NBA, have shot poorly and rarely meshed.

The Nets were embarrassed near the end of their 93-76 loss to Boston, when fans exited early amid a chant of "Let's go Celtics!"

"Nets fans deserved better," Yormark tweeted after the game. "The entire organization needs to work harder to find a solution. We will get there."

Not under Johnson, though.

The Nets should be able to entice a big-name coach with Prokhorov's billions and the chance to play in a major market at Barclays Center, the $1 billion arena that has drawn praise in the city and from visiting teams.

Carlesimo has previous NBA head coaching experience in Portland, Golden State and Seattle/Oklahoma City. He has a career coaching record of 204-296 in the regular season and 3-9 in the playoffs.

"Right now, P.J. is our coach and I told him to coach the team like he'll be here for the next 10 years," King said.


AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in East Rutherford and AP freelancer Jim Hague contributed to this report.

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A gunmaker ripe for an ethical takeover

Several .223 caliber rounds near a Bushmaster XM-15; the manufacturer's owner is putting its gun companies up for sale.


  • The owner of America's largest gunmaker is putting firm up for sale

  • John MacIntosh says billionaires should lead effort to acquire the gun manufacturer

  • He says they should change corporate practices to discourage violence

  • MacIntosh: One leading company could push gun industry in a more ethical direction

Editor's note: John MacIntosh was a partner at Warburg Pincus, a leading global private equity firm, where he worked from 1994 to 2006 in New York, Tokyo and London. He now runs a nonprofit in New York.

(CNN) -- In the 1970s and '80s, when corporate America was plagued with inefficiency, a new class of financially motivated takeover investor emerged to prey on the fattest in the corporate herd and scare the rest into line.

Today, as pockets of corporate America are plagued with immorality, we need a new class of socially motivated takeover investor to prey on the sociopaths in the corporate herd, turn them around and perhaps scare (or shame) others into line.

John MacIntosh

John MacIntosh

The upcoming sale by Cerberus Capital of the Freedom Group, the largest gun manufacturer in the United States, is a perfect opportunity to usher in this new era of muscular, socially responsible capitalism:

First, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, David Geffen and the like should establish a nonprofit SPAC (Special-Purpose-Acquisition-Company) called BidForFreedom.org (BFF) with a mission to reduce needless deaths through gun violence in the United States and encourage the passage of sensible gun control regulations.

They should appoint George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon to the fundraising committee and recruit a loud-mouthed, poison-penned, but good-hearted activist hedge fund titan as chief investment officer (Bill Ackman? Dan Loeb?).

Opinion: Forgotten victims of gun violence

To be credible, BFF will probably need to start with at least $250 million in cash and commitments (no problem given the billionaire status of the sponsors) with additional firepower raised as needed from well-heeled individuals, foundations and through a broad-based Internet solicitation to an outraged-by-Newtown public.

Second, BFF should lobby all public pension funds that are part owners of the Freedom Group (by virtue of their investment in Cerberus) to roll their investment into BFF to reduce the need for outside funding, naming and shaming any unwilling public investors.

Newtown shooter's guns

Third, BFF should pay "whatever it takes" to acquire control of the Freedom Group in the upcoming auction by Cerberus (which has a fiduciary obligation to sell to the highest bidder) and then immediately implement a "moral turnaround" plan under which the Freedom Group:

(i) Appoints a high-profile CEO with impeccable credentials as a hunter and/or marksman who is nevertheless in favor of gun-control.

Opinion: Guns endanger more than they protect

(ii) Elects a new board of directors including representatives from the families of victims killed in Newtown (and/or other massacres perpetrated with Freedom Group weapons), military veterans and trauma surgeons with real experience of human-on-human gunfire, and law enforcement and mental health professionals.

(iii) Operates the business as if sensible gun laws were in place (this may turn out to be a wise investment in future-proofing the company): discontinuing sales of the most egregious assault weapons and modifying others as necessary so they cannot take huge-volume clips; offering to buy back all Freedom Group assault weapons in circulation; micro-stamping weapons for easy tracking; and providing price discounts for buyers willing to go through a background check and register in a database available to law enforcement.

(iv) Voluntarily waives its rights to support the NRA and other lobbying groups.

(v) Creates a fund to compensate those who, despite its best efforts, are killed or wounded by its weapons.

(vi) Agrees that if the effort to provide moral leadership in the weapons industry doesn't succeed within a year, BFF should consider corporate euthanasia, even though it entails a risk of allowing more retrograde manufacturers to fill the void in the market left by the then-deceased company.

Opinion: The case for gun rights is stronger than you think

In the face of horrors like Newtown, BFF would recognize that it's time to take a stand by acknowledging the impossibility of reaching closure after such a monstrous act while an unreconstructed Freedom Group continues to sell a huge volume of guns and ammunition rounds each year even if it is operating under new owners.

Like any Trojan Horse strategy, this is a long shot, but it must be tried. History suggests that only after the first company "turns" will an industry gradually return to the realm of the human (think of big tobacco). And without the tacit agreement, if not the outright support, of at least one important insider, policymakers seem utterly unable to pass tough regulations in the face of the predictable, but withering, assault by industry lackeys shrieking that any such regulation would be "impossible, impractical or too expensive."

In the face of a recalcitrant industry, we have to acknowledge that it is only the market for corporate control -- the real possibility that an outsider will take over one of the companies -- that puts limits on the behavior of board members and executives who, while perhaps decent enough in their family lives, display a limitless tolerance for the "banality of evil" at the office.

Opinion: Not man enough? Buy a gun

We must accept that the conventional, kid-gloves approach to socially responsible investing -- divesting shares in "bad" companies that nevertheless continue to exist -- is too weak an instrument to force change and its well-meaning practitioners too soft to enter the fray when emotionally and politically charged battles need to be fought.

And regardless of the viability of socially motivated takeovers in general, the Freedom Group looks like a great target. Cerberus is a motivated seller, the political macros look favorable, and it's a bite-sized company compared with many of the larger sociopaths in the corporate herd.

I'm even cautiously optimistic that the current impasse over gun regulation is a bad-equilibrium that few consumers actually want, and that a reconstructed Freedom Group, fighting for sensible change as a fifth column from within the industry, might well find that many people -- even a significant portion of the NRA's members -- would buy from a truly responsible (and high quality) gun maker if given the chance.

All in all, it's a pretty exciting deal, so if Mike and George are up for it, count me in.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John MacIntosh.

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Snow buries parts of Northeast, flights canceled

BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - A powerful winter storm pushed through the U.S. Northeast on Thursday, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of airline flights while bringing some holiday cheer to families hoping for snow and lifting spirits at ski resorts in the region.

The storm dumped a foot of snow on parts of the United States with the heaviest snow falling across northern New York and New England, the National Weather Service reported.

"It feels lovely to have wonderful snow for the kids to play in, and I think it's the kind of snow that's good for making forts and snowmen," said Katryna Nields, a musician in Conway, Massachusetts, who was outside her home shoveling snow.

"It's just the kind of snow you want for between Christmas and New Year's," she added.

The National Weather Service issued winter storm warnings for parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England and coastal flood advisories from New York's Long Island to southern Maine.

Airlines canceled more than 800 flights on Thursday, according to FlightAware.com, a website that tracks flights.

Some flights into and out of the three major New York City area airports - Newark Liberty International, John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia - were delayed due to the weather, the Federal Aviation Administration reported.

The weather service forecast 12 to 18 inches of snow for northern New England, accompanied by freezing rain and sleet, creating hazards on the highways and at airports.

More snow is headed east, said Alex Sosnowski, senior meteorologist at Accuweather.com.

"A new storm is in the works for portions of New England, the mid-Atlantic and the Ohio Valley," he said.

The new storm "will bring more snow to areas that received snow from the post-Christmas storm and will bring snow to some areas that got rain or mostly rain," he said, adding that it has the potential to strengthen to a strong nor'easter or blizzard in parts of New England.

Tom Olney, a 50-year-old stay-at-home father of two, was making plans to go sledding with his children in their hometown of Wayland, Massachusetts.

"We love snow," Olney said. "What else are you going to do when it's this wet and cold out?"

Western Massachusetts, like much of the Northeast, had an uncharacteristically mild winter last year, but residents such as Olney say they are ready for a more typical cold season.

"Mother Nature doesn't usually give you two in a row," he said. "We've still got a lot of supplies from last year, so I guess we're ready for it now."

Heavy snow was falling in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Eleven inches of snow was forecast for Buffalo, where some 8 to 12 inches of snow fell overnight into Thursday. Prior to that, Buffalo was 23 inches below average for this time of year, the weather service said.

"It's just a reminder, winter is here," said Tom Paone of the National Weather Service in Buffalo.

Daniel Ivancic, of the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda, said he bought a snowmobile last winter that has sat largely idle with snow totals well below average.

"I waited and waited and, no snow. This winter it seemed like the same thing was going to happen until the storm hit," Ivancic said. "I'm just going to take advantage of every minute of it."

Police patrolling the New York State Thruway from Buffalo to Albany reported dozens of accidents, mostly involving cars that slipped off snowy roads overnight.

Freezing rain - making for treacherous travel conditions - was predicted for parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia while significant rain was likely along the New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland coasts, the weather service said.

The storm system dumped record snow in north Texas and Arkansas before sweeping through the South on Christmas Day and then veering north.

The system triggered tornadoes and left almost 200,000 people in Arkansas and Alabama without power on Wednesday.

Authorities said an 81-year-old man died in Georgiana, Alabama after a tree fell on his home.

(Additional reporting by Betsy Pisik in Wayland, Massachusetts, Zach Howard in Conway, Massachusetts, Kaija Wilkinson in Mobile, Alabama, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Dan Burns in New York; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Claudia Parsons)

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Russia's Putin signals he will sign U.S. adoption ban

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin signaled on Thursday he would sign into law a bill barring Americans from adopting Russian children and sought to forestall criticism of the move by promising measures to better care for his country's orphans.

In televised comments, Putin tried to appeal to people's patriotism by suggesting that strong and responsible countries should take care of their own and lent his support to a bill that has further strained U.S.-Russia relations.

"There are probably many places in the world where living standards are higher than ours. So what, are we going to send all our children there? Maybe we should move there ourselves?" he said, with sarcasm.

Parliament gave its final approval on Wednesday to the bill, which would also introduce other measures in retaliation for new U.S. legislation which is designed to punish Russians accused of human rights violations.

For it to become law Putin needs to sign it.

"So far I see no reason not to sign it, although I have to review the final text and weigh everything," Putin said at a meeting of federal and regional officials that was shown live on the state's 24-hour news channel.

"I intend to sign not only the law ... but also a presidential decree that will modify the support mechanisms for orphaned children ... especially those who are in a difficult situation, by that I mean in poor health," Putin said.

Critics of the bill say the Russian authorities are playing political games with the lives of children, while the U.S. State Department repeated its "deep concern" over the measure.

"Since 1992 American families have welcomed more than 60,000 Russian children into their homes, and it is misguided to link the fate of children to unrelated political considerations," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement.

Ventrell added that the United States was troubled by provisions in the bill that would restrict the ability of Russian civil society organizations to work with U.S. partners.

Children in Russia's crowded and troubled orphanage system - particularly those with serious illnesses or disabilities - will have less of a chance of finding homes, and of even surviving, if it becomes law, child rights advocates say.

They point to people like Jessica Long, who was given up shortly after birth by her parents in Siberia but was raised by adoptive parents in the United States and became a Paralympic swimming champion.

However, the Russian authorities point to the deaths of 19 Russian-born children adopted by American parents in the past decade, and lawmakers named the bill after a boy who died of heat stroke in Virginia after his adoptive father left him locked in a car for hours.

Putin reiterated Russian complaints that U.S. courts have been too lenient on parents in such cases, saying Russia has inadequate access to Russian-born children in the United States despite a bilateral agreement that entered into force on November 1.


But Putin, who began a new six-year term in May and has searched for ways to unite the country during 13 years in power, suggested there were deeper motives for such a ban.

"For centuries, neither spiritual nor state leaders sent anyone abroad," he said, indicating he was not speaking specifically about Russia but about many societies.

"They always fight for their national identities - they gather themselves together in a fist, they fight for their language, culture," he said.

The bid to ban American adoptions plays on sensitivity in Russia about adoptions by foreigners, which skyrocketed as the social safety net unraveled with the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Families from the United States adopt more Russian children than those of any other country.

Putin had earlier described the Russian bill as an emotional but appropriate response to the Magnitsky Act, legislation signed by President Barack Obama this month as part of a law granting Russia "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR) status.

The U.S. law imposes visa bans and asset freezes on Russians accused of human rights violations, including those linked to the death in a Moscow jail of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-graft lawyer, in 2009.

The Russian bill would impose similar measures against Americans accused of violating the rights of Russian abroad and outlaw some U.S.-funded non-governmental groups.

(Reporting By Alexei Anishchuk; additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Doina Chiacu)

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Wall Street drops in thin session, led by retailers

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks fell for a third straight day on Wednesday, dragged lower by retail stocks after a report showed consumers spent less in the holiday shopping season than last year.

Trading was light, with volume at a mere 4.01 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT, well below the daily average so far this year of about 6.48 billion shares. The day's volume was the lightest full day of trading so far in 2012. Many senior traders were still on vacation during this holiday-shortened week and major European markets were closed for the day.

Many investors said concerns about the "fiscal cliff" kept shoppers away from stores, suggesting markets may struggle to gain any ground until that issue is resolved. The CBOE Volatility Index <.vix> or VIX, Wall Street's favorite barometer of investor anxiety, rose 4.46 percent, closing above 19 for the first time since November 7.

A number of 2012's strongest performers advanced, a sign that portfolio managers may be engaging in "window dressing," a practice where market participants buy securities with big gains to improve the appearance of their holdings before presenting the results to clients. Bank of America Corp , which has more than doubled in 2012, added 2.6 percent to $11.54 on Wednesday.

Holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from October 28 through December 24, compared with a 2 percent increase last year, according to data from MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. The Morgan Stanley retail index <.mvr> skidded 1.8 percent while the SPDR S&P Retail Trust slipped 1.7 percent.

"With the 'fiscal cliff' hanging over our heads, it was hard to convince people to shop, and now it's hard to convince investors that there's any reason to buy going into year-end," said Rick Fier, director of trading at Conifer Securities in New York, which has about $12 billion in assets under administration.

President Barack Obama is due back in Washington early Thursday for a final effort to negotiate a deal with Congress to bridge a series of tax increases and government spending cuts set to begin next week, the so-called "fiscal cliff" many economists worry could push the U.S. economy into recession if it takes effect.

Coach Inc fell 5.9 percent to $54.13 as the S&P 500's biggest decliner, followed by Amazon.com , down 3.9 percent at $248.63, and Abercrombie & Fitch , off 3.5 percent at $45.44. Ralph Lauren Corp , Limited Brands and Gap Inc also ranked among the S&P 500's biggest decliners.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> slipped 24.49 points, or 0.19 percent, to 13,114.59 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> shed 6.83 points, or 0.48 percent, to 1,419.83. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> dropped 22.44 points, or 0.74 percent, to 2,990.16.

J.C. Penney Co was a notable exception to the weakness in retail stocks, surging 4.4 percent to $20.75 as the S&P 500's biggest gainer. It was followed closely by Bank of America and Genworth Financial , which each gained nearly 3 percent for the day.

"People want to show they own names like these, making them prime 'window dressing' candidates," said Wayne Kaufman, chief market analyst at John Thomas Financial in New York.

"Bank of America keeps going up even though it's overbought and you'd expect a pullback at these levels. No one wanted it when it was under $10 a share, but they want it now."

The S&P 500 has fallen 1.5 percent over the past three sessions, the worst three-day decline since mid-November. The Dow Jones Transportation Average <.djt>, viewed as a proxy for business activity, fell 0.6 percent.

A Republican plan that failed to gain traction last week triggered the S&P 500's recent drop, highlighting the market's sensitivity to headlines centered on the budget talks.

During the last five trading days of the year and the first two of next year, it's possible for a "Santa rally" to occur. Since 1928, the S&P 500 has averaged a gain of 1.8 percent during that period and risen 79 percent of the time, according to data from PrinceRidge.

"While it's unlikely there could be a budget deal at any time, no one wants to get in front of that trade," said Conifer's Fier. "Investors can easily make up for any gains when there's more action in 2013."

Data showed U.S. single-family home prices rose in October, reinforcing the view that the domestic real estate market is improving, as the S&P/Case-Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas gained 0.7 percent in October on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Decliners outnumbered advancers on the New York Stock Exchange by a ratio of about 2 to 1, while on the Nasdaq, more than five stocks fell for every three that rose.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Denver rolls, keeps top spot in AP Pro32 rankings

NEW YORK (AP) — Peyton Manning and his Broncos are closing in on the playoffs as the top team in the AP Pro32 NFL power rankings.

Denver strengthened its grip on the top spot Wednesday following its 10th win in a row, receiving nine first-place votes and 381 points in balloting by The Associated Press panel of 12 media members who regularly cover the league.

The AFC West champion Broncos (12-3) close out the regular season at home against Kansas City (2-13), 32nd and last in the rankings. The final AP Pro32 rankings will be released next Wednesday.

The NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons (13-2) moved up two places to second with one first-place vote and 363 points. Last week, the Broncos were first by three points over San Francisco, which dropped to sixth after being blown out by Seattle.

"Eleven in a row (after KC this weekend) and primed for a Super Bowl run," Rich Gannon of CBS Sports/Sirius XM said in voting the Broncos first.

"As expected the Broncos have become a scoring machine that also has good pass rushers. Still a chance they are the No. 1 seed in the AFC," Pat Kirwan of SiriusXM NFL Radio/CBSSports.com said.

The Seahawks (one first-place vote) were up two spots to fifth after routing the 49ers 42-13 on Sunday night.

"They have scored 120 points more than their last three opponents and officially have become the team no one wants to play in the postseason," Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune said.

Despite the loss, the 49ers still received a first-place vote.

"Admittedly, a HUGE mulligan," said ESPN's Chris Berman in sticking with the 49ers at No. 1.

Green Bay was up three spots to third after its 55-7 rout of Tennessee, while New England dropped a place to fourth after hanging on for a 23-16 win over No. 31 Jacksonville.

"If there's any solace from an unimpressive win at Jacksonville, the Patriots also seemed disinterested in their final two regular-season games last year before reaching Super Bowl," Alex Marvez of Foxsports.com said.

"Yes, the Patriots are hard to figure out, but this isn't: They're always a Super Bowl factor as long as Tom Brady is healthy," Clark Judge of CBSSports.com said.

Indianapolis, which clinched a playoff spot with a win over Kansas City, moved up to 10th in a season in which the Colts started out No. 32 in the first AP Pro32 rankings.

"Can an assistant coach be named the NFL's coach of the year? Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has put himself in that position for his interim work filling in for ailing head coach Chuck Pagano this season," Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News said.

And yes, Arians can win the award.

Minnesota, meanwhile, rose to No. 12 this week, and needs a win over Green Bay to earn a playoff spot. The Vikings started the season 29th.

"Adrian Peterson is finally getting a little help from his friends," Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune said.

Philadelphia began the season No. 8 and dropped three more spots to No. 27 after a 27-20 loss to Washington. The Redskins, meanwhile, went the other way, starting at No. 25 and rising to No. 9 this week.

"It's very simple for the resurgent Redskins: beat the Cowboys on Sunday, and the division is theirs," Bob Glauber of Newsday said. "Would be an incredible finish for a team that looked to be out of it at 3-6."


Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL


Follow Richard Rosenblatt on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/rosenblattap

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Experimental Private Rocket Makes Highest Test Hop Yet

A privately built rocket prototype that could lead to a completely reusable spaceflight system has passed its biggest test yet — a 12-story hop and smooth landing.

The experimental reusable rocket, called the Grasshopper, made its highest and longest flight yet on Dec. 17, marking the prototype’s third successful test by the private spaceflight company SpaceX.

In the latest test at SpaceX’s proving grounds in MacGregor, Texas, the Grasshopper rocket flew for 29 seconds and reached a height of more than 130 feet (40 meters). A video of the Grasshopper test flight shows the rocket soaring up into the Texas sky, then smoothly descending to land on four spindly legs.

In mid-November, the Grasshopper rocket flew nearly two stories (17.7 feet or 5.4 meters) up during its second test flight. The rocket’s debut flight in September flew 6 feet (1.8 meters) into the air before landing. So far, all of the prototype’s tests have been successful.

With Grasshopper, SpaceX is trying to solve a long-standing challenge with spaceflight: cost. Because today’s rockets aren’t completely reusable, they act as expensive, one-use machines. Companies are now trying to develop rockets that can both launch from and land on Earth intact, in order to be flown again on future missions.

Grasshopper stands at 10 stories tall (108 feet, 32.9 meters) and houses the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, the same rocket that launched the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station earlier this year. A Merlin 1D engine and a steel support structure round out the Grasshopper’s unique design.

The rocket takes off like a typical vertically launched rocket, but its landing method makes it unique. Grasshopper has four steel, springy legs to support its weight, allowing it to gently land in the same way it takes off.

A rocket has never successfully landed intact after being launch to space. While NASA’s space shuttles were reusable after launch, the huge 15-story external tanks that helped them reach orbit were not recycled. 

SpaceX ultimately envisions using three recyclable components for future space travel: a rocket second stage, a rocket first stage, and a cone-shaped capsule.

While most rockets today land in the ocean after reaching space, a land-based landing is preferred for this hardware. Brackish seawater can cause unnecessary damage to otherwise reusable pieces of a rocket. Each piece of the rocket will land separately so that they can be collected for later use. The two rocket stages‘ landings will be aided by their engines and the capsule’s descent should be cushioned by a parachute.

SpaceX is planning more sophisticated, even higher hops for Grasshopper in the coming months, company officials said.

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is one of several companies developing new vehicles for private space travel. The company is one of two firms with NASA contracts to provide unmanned cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. SpaceX’s $ 1.6 billion deal with NASA calls for 12 cargo missions to the space station using the company’s unmanned Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rockets. 

SpaceX is also developing a manned version of its Dragon capsule  and is one of several firms competing for NASA contracts to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit.

Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Climate change: No consensus needed

Lake Cachet II in Aysen, Chilean Patagonia, disappeared because of rising temperatures driven by climate change, experts say.


  • Tseming Yang: Result of Doha climate change conference less than desirable

  • Yang: It's time to abandon the myth that a consensus solution is the best approach

  • He says the 25 major carbon emitters should work out an agreement among themselves

  • Yang: Smaller, focused discussions may be better than large, U.N.-style gatherings

Editor's note: Tseming Yang, former deputy general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency, is professor of law at Santa Clara University Law School.

(CNN) -- The Doha climate change conference this year was the most significant in nearly 20 years of gatherings under the U.N. Framework Convention process aimed at staving off future global warming disaster.

Since carbon dioxide emission limits agreed to under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol were to expire at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2012, it was critical that the international community agreed to extend those obligations and to continue talks about future emission cuts.

But the outcome fell far short of what will be necessary to keep the world's average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius in the foreseeable future.

Under the Doha arrangement, 17 of the 25 biggest carbon emitting countries (including China, the United States, Russia and India) did not commit to any legally binding emission limits. The countries that did agree to extend and deepen their Kyoto emission reductions, including the European Union, Australia and Eastern Europe, make up only about 15% of the world's emissions. That seems like a rather meager return on the investment of time and effort over the past years.

But there is one silver lining.

The world's top 20 carbon emitters together make up about 77% of emission and account for about 4.3 billion people, which is about 62% of the global population. The remaining 170 or so countries account for just over 20% of emissions.

As often is the case, these negotiations over climate have come to symbolize epic David and Goliath struggles pitting poor developing countries against recalcitrant government officials from rich countries. Lobbying efforts, shaming tactics, and staging public demonstrations have been the slingshots of choice. One result is that more people are paying attention to environmental issues.

Nonetheless, it is time to abandon the myth that a consensus solution is necessarily the best approach. The unfortunate reality is that little can get done right now. It's like having hundreds of cooks with hundreds of different recipes attempting to prepare one meal in the same small kitchen. After two decades of hard work, it is time to consider reducing the number of cooks.

A better alternative to a United Nations-style conference would be for the 25 major emitters to come to an agreement just among themselves about their mutual commitments to deal with climate change effectively.

In other words, get the 25 cooks to work together on the main meal. The hundreds of other cooks ought to step out of the kitchen.

Some smaller, focused discussions have already started, such as in the Major Economies Forum. Imagine what kind of deals on cutting emissions would be possible just among China, India and the United States -- the top three emitters in the world respectively. Imagine a deal involving emission sources in China, which has some of the world's most polluting coal-fired power plants, and California, which is on a course to become one of the most stringently controlled states in carbon emissions.

Of course, there are no guarantees for success. But discussions within such a smaller group would allow government leaders to confront the realities of climate change and engage in direct horse-trading without the static of thousands of other voices desiring to load their issues into the deal.

Let's face it -- we are way beyond the time for finding an ideal solution. Every year the world waits to take further concrete steps to cut emissions, the atmosphere will be loaded with millions of tons more carbon dioxide that will stay for a century. And the job of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius will be more out of reach.

At the best, gatherings like the one in Doha dangle a tantalizing mirage of achieving a sustainable future. At the worst, they give cover to governments that would rather avoid the hard choices they ultimately will have to make.

After one more expensive and time-consuming round of talks, it's time to be honest with what can really be accomplished in these U.N.-style gatherings.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tseming Yang.

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One of Chicago's most feared mobsters dies in prison

Frank Calabrese Jr., ex-mobster and author of the book Family Secrets, speaks to the Chicago Tribune's John Kass on March 14, 2011, at Bella Luna cafe in Chicago. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune, March 14, 2011)

Convicted mob hitman Frank Calabrese Sr. has died in a federal prison in North Carolina.

Calabrese died on Christmas at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, where he had been serving a life sentence, according to a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons. He was 75.

Calabrese, one of Chicago’s most feared mobsters, was convicted in 2007 during the Operation Family Secrets trial.

A federal jury held Calabrese and two other aging mobsters -- Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo and James Marcello -- responsible for 10 murders after a trial that exposed the seedy inner workings of organized crime in Chicago.

Calabrese,  a portly, bearded loan shark who according to witnesses doubled as a hit man, was found responsible for seven mob murders. Witnesses, including his brother Nicholas Calabrese, said he strangled victims with a rope, then cut their throats to make sure they were dead.

Marcello, described by prosecutors as a top leader of the Chicago Outfit, was held responsible for the June 1986 murder of Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, the Chicago mob's longtime man in Las Vegas and the inspiration for the Joe Pesci character in the movie "Casino."

The Family Secrets trial was the biggest organized crime case in Chicago in years. The defendants were convicted of operating the Chicago Outfit as a racketeering enterprise.

They allegedly squeezed "street tax," similar to protection money, out of businesses, ran sports bookmaking and video poker operations as well as engaged in loan sharking. And they allegedly killed many of those who they feared might spill mob secrets to the government -- or already were doing so.

The cases went unsolved for decades.

Calabrese’s attorney in the Family Secrets trial, Joseph “Shark” Lopez, said Calabrese had been in ill health.

“Last I spoke with him a little over a year ago, he was a sick man,” Lopez said. “He was on about 17 different medications. But always a strong-willed individual.”

After spending hundreds of hours together while Calabrese was on trial, Lopez said the two developed a relationship.

“Sure he was difficult at times because he was used to getting his way, but I only saw one side of him and that was the good side,” Lopez said. “He was a pleasure to deal with and a pleasure to talk to. We’d talk about cooking, restaurants, history, you name it.”

“He was quick-witted, smart and street-savvy,” Lopez said. “Always very upbeat; nothing could keep Frank down.”

Lopez said Calabrese was very religious, making his Christmas day death feel “odd.”

“He always talked about how much he loved spending Christmas with his family. It was his favorite holiday of the year,” he said.

Lopez said he thinks there will be mixed feelings in Chicago about Calabrese’s death.

“I’m sure there are some people really sad and some people really happy,” Lopez said. “I’m sad for his family.”

Frank Coconate, a friend of the family, said he heard about the death through Calabrese's wife.

"I’m a little shook up about it,’’ said Coconate, 54, who took vacations to Florida with his wife and Calabrese and often dined with him.  “It’s a family tragedy."

Coconate said Calabrese had heart problems, and had broken his hip in the shower about a month ago.

Coconate remembered Calabrese as a “unique individual’’ with a temper that would flare up unexpectedly, even during dinners out with his family.

"If he heard something, if you shot your mouth off, you’d be having dinner and he’d ask you to come outside and he’d crack you in the head," Coconate said. "He was a throwback gangster. He would fight with his fists and was strong as a bull. But that’s the business they’re are in.

"He was a great manipulator," he said, recalling recent allegations that Calabrese persuaded a priest to act as a messenger for him. "He was very charming. That’s what made him dangerous.’’

He said the last real communication he’d received from Calabrese was a 19-page letter from prison. In recent years, there were just brief messages through other people. “He’d say, 'How's it going? How’s your wife?' He’d say keep an eye on his son. He didn’t want him him to get hurt."

Coconate said Calabrese was in isolation in prison, and only Calabrese's wife and his lawyer were allowed to see him about every month. “It’s pretty sad. But whatever he was, nobody should be treated like that. An animal should not be treated that way."

Coconate was in the news himself in 2005 when he was fired from his city job in Chicago. He was later reinstated after contending he was dismissed because of his frequent criticism of the Daley administration.

Calabrese's body was taken to the medical examiner's office, where it was to be examined, according to Kevin Gerity, autopsy manager for the office. 

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Syria to discuss Brahimi peace proposals with Russia

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a senior diplomat to Moscow on Wednesday to discuss proposals to end the conflict convulsing his country made by international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Syrian and Lebanese sources said.

Brahimi, who saw Assad on Monday and is planning to hold a series of meetings with Syrian officials and dissidents in Damascus this week, is trying to broker a peaceful transfer of power, but has disclosed little about how this might be done.

More than 44,000 Syrians have been killed in a revolt against four decades of Assad family rule, a conflict that began with peaceful protests but which has descended into civil war.

Past peace efforts have floundered, with world powers divided over what has become an increasingly sectarian struggle between mostly Sunni Muslim rebels and Assad's security forces, drawn primarily from his Shi'ite-rooted Alawite minority.

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Makdad flew to Moscow to discuss the details of the talks with Brahimi, said a Syrian security source, who would not say if a deal was in the works.

However, a Lebanese official close to Damascus said Makdad had been sent to seek Russian advice on a possible agreement.

He said Syrian officials were upbeat after talks with Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, who met Foreign Minister Walid Moualem on Tuesday a day after his session with Assad, but who has not outlined his ideas in public.

"There is a new mood now and something good is happening," the official said, asking not to be named. He gave no details.

Russia, which has given Assad diplomatic and military aid to help him weather the 21-month-old uprising, has said it is not protecting him, but has fiercely criticized any foreign backing for rebels and, with China, has blocked U.N. Security Council action on Syria.


A Russian Foreign Ministry source said Makdad and an aide would meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Mikhail Bogdanov, the Kremlin's special envoy for Middle East affairs, on Thursday, but did not disclose the nature of the talks.

On Saturday, Lavrov said Syria's civil war had reached a stalemate, saying international efforts to get Assad to quit would fail. Bogdanov had earlier acknowledged that Syrian rebels were gaining ground and might win.

Given the scale of the bloodshed and destruction, Assad's opponents insist the Syrian president must go.

Moaz Alkhatib, head of the internationally-recognized Syrian National Coalition opposition, has criticized any notion of a transitional government in which Assad would stay on as a figurehead president stripped of real powers.

Comments on Alkhatib's Facebook page on Monday suggested that the opposition believed this was one of Brahimi's ideas.

"The government and its president cannot stay in power, with or without their powers," Alkhatib wrote, saying his Coalition had told Brahimi it rejected any such solution.

While Brahimi was working to bridge the vast gaps between Assad and his foes, fighting raged across the country and a senior Syrian military officer defected to the rebels.

Syrian army shelling killed about 20 people, at least eight of them children, in the northern province of Raqqa, a video posted by opposition campaigners showed.

The video, published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, showed rows of blood-stained bodies laid out on blankets. The sound of crying relatives could be heard in the background.

The shelling hit the province's al-Qahtania village, but it was unclear when the attack had occurred.


Rebels relaunched their assault on the Wadi Deif military base in the northwestern province of Idlib, in a battle for a major army compound and fuel storage and distribution point.

Activist Ahmed Kaddour said rebels were firing mortars and had attacked the base with a vehicle rigged with explosives.

The British-based Observatory, which uses a network of contacts in Syria to monitor the conflict, said a rebel commander was among several people killed in Wednesday's fighting, which it said was among the heaviest for months.

The military used artillery and air strikes to try to hold back rebels assaulting Wadi Deif and the town of Morek in Hama province further south. In one air raid, several rockets fell near a field hospital in the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib province, wounding several people, the Observatory said.

As violence has intensified in recent weeks, daily death tolls have climbed. The Observatory reported at least 190 had been killed across the country on Tuesday alone.

The head of Syria's military police changed sides and declared allegiance to the anti-Assad revolt.

"I am General Abdelaziz Jassim al-Shalal, head of the military police. I have defected because of the deviation of the army from its primary duty of protecting the country and its transformation into gangs of killing and destruction," the officer said in a video published on YouTube.

A Syrian security source confirmed the defection, but said Shalal was near retirement and had only defected to "play hero".

Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar left Lebanon for Damascus after being treated in Beirut for wounds sustained in a rebel bomb attack this month.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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