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Kindle Fire’s challenge to Apple and Google | Dan Gillmor September 28, 2011

When Apple introduced its second-generation iPad earlier this year, then-CEO Steve Jobs used the word “flummoxed” to describe his company’s erstwhile competitors in the tablet market. He was right; the competition has been scattered, and mostly inept.

Until now? Perhaps so, with Wednesday’s launch of the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s entry into the market. But this device, at just under $200, is to the iPad (about $500 in its least expensive version) as a cheap sedan is to a Lexus SUV: functional and useful, but nowhere near as elegant or powerful.

Indeed, the Fire, Amazon’s first effort in this genre, is plainly not intended to compete head-to-head with the iPad. It’s smaller, much less capable in terms of features and hardware – and 60% cheaper. [For the sake of disclosure: I own some Amazon shares.]

The Fire is just one of several devices Amazon announced at a New York event. But it’s by far the most important, for what it says about the tablet marketplace. The market, at least for the time being, is bifurcating between the luxury models (iPad and, in distant runner-up position, high-end Android tablets), which can do many things well, and utilitarian models (such as Fire, running a modified version of Google’s Android, and a number of other, pure-Android devices), which are intended mainly as media-consuming devices.

I haven’t gotten my hands on the Fire, but I have no immediate plans to buy one. Not quite a year ago, I purchased a Samsung Galaxy Tab with a 7-inch screen. It has become my main mobile media device, for getting news, reading books (including Kindle files), and watching movies in particular, plus as an occasional email and social-media connector. It has a camera and microphone I hardly ever use. (The Android operating system needs updating, yet Samsung and its telecom partner for the one I bought, T-Mobile, have declined to provide the update – a classic demonstration of vendor contempt for customers.) The Tab, still relatively expensive, was grossly overpriced at the time I bought it – curse of the early adopter – but it’s still working well enough for now.

For my purposes, the 7-inch size is ideal. That’s why I believe Amazon is doing the right thing with its first tablet by keeping it small, especially given that Amazon’s major goal is to have customers use it as a media consumption device, which also runs Android games and other apps. I will also take bets that Apple, despite Jobs’s pronouncement that he would never sell a tablet of that size, will reconsider and do so at some point; the value proposition is too obvious.

The Fire’s relatively low price reflects Amazon’s business model, and the company’s insistence that the devices should be seen as one element in a larger collection of services. It has a growing collection of media it can sell or rent to its customers. To some degree, Apple’s media sales and rentals are aimed at selling expensive hardware, but Amazon’s experience with the Kindle has been more about selling cheap hardware to sell more books. (The word “sell” is questionable in digital media, which so often comes, as on the Kindle, with severe restrictions on what a customer can do with it after “buying” the media file.)

The big loser in the Amazon announcement could be Barnes Noble, which should have been the major competitor to Apple. The Nook Color, a 7-inch tablet launched last year by the bookstore chain, costs a competitive $250 and has decent hardware for the price. Yet Barnes Noble made strategic error. Even though the Nook Color – created by a talented Silicon Valley team the company assembled – runs on Android, the operating system was deliberately crippled, preventing it from running a customer’s choice of Android apps.

I would guess – Barnes Noble has declined to discuss its reasoning – that the Android Kindle app was uppermost in the minds of the corporate strategists who made this decision. Users quickly found ways to hack the Nook Color to turn it into a for-real Android tablet, but Barnes Noble should never have forced them into this position.

Amazon has also heavily modified Android, and like Barnes Noble, it’s telling customers to use its own app store. This is regrettable, but Amazon may get away with it, having created a fairly robust store and having tons of available media – not to mention gazillions of customers, all of whom have stored credit-card information with Amazon, for the many other products it sells.

Other 7-inch tablets are on the market and on the way, and none looks very competitive with the Fire, at the moment. It’s probably too late for Barnes Noble to try, but if I had the ear of the company’s executives, I would suggest opening up the upcoming second-generation Nook Color, lowering the price and positioning it as a Fire alternative that shows more respect for customer choice.

The Amazon moves are also a problem for Google. By creating what software developers call a “fork” – a version of the open-source Android that is plainly moving down a different road – Amazon is challenging Google’s primacy with the OS it originally developed. Google cannot be happy about this, but all it can do – until someone hacks the Fire to free it from Amazon’s restrictions – is keep its own apps and app marketplace off the devices, which is counterproductive in its own way.

If the Fire pre-empts the non-iPad competition, as it may, might Google feel obliged to create its own branded tablet? I would not bet against it.

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NM Wildfire, Grows, Forcing Shutdown of Famed Los Alamos Nuke Lab June 28, 2011

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — A fast-moving wildfire forced officials at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory to close the site Monday while stirring memories of a devastating blaze more than a decade ago that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in the area.

More than 100 residents evacuated their homes as the fire swelled Monday to 68 square miles and loomed just a mile southwest of the nation’s pre-eminent nuclear lab. Overnight winds from the northwest kept the blaze from moving onto lab property, though forecasts called for a change in wind patterns by midday.

The famed northern New Mexico lab, where scientists developed and tested the first atomic bomb during World War II, activated its emergency operations center overnight and cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.

Officials said all hazardous and radioactive materials were being protected.

The lab was closed Monday, and Los Alamos and nearby White Rock were under voluntary evacuation orders.

About 100 residents from the rural towns of Cochiti Mesa and Las Conchas were evacuated after the fire started Sunday afternoon. In nearby Santa Fe, emergency officials were preparing to provide a shelter for evacuees.

The blaze started on private land about 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos. Flames and smoke could be seen from the outskirts of Albuquerque, about 80 miles away.

On Monday morning, the Pajarito plateau upon which the lab sits was awash in a thick haze, while a charred stench permeated the area. On the southwestern edge of the plateau, white smoke filled the canyons above Cochiti reservoir and on the north end heavy black columns of smokes were rising in the air.

Cars headed down the two-lane highway that snakes from Los Alamos to Pojoaque were stuffed with belongings as residents fled the blaze.

The fire was eerily similar to one of the most destructive fires in New Mexico history. That fire, the Cerro Grande, burned some 47,000 acres — 73 square miles — in May 2000 and caused more than $1 billion in property damage. About 400 homes and 100 buildings on lab property were destroyed in that fire.

That blaze also raised concerns about toxic runoff and radioactive smoke, although lab spokesman Kevin Roark said no contaminants were released in the Cerro Grande fire.

Environmental specialists from the lab were mobilized and monitoring air quality on Monday, he said, but the main concern was smoke.

Still, there were questions about whether firefighters would be prepared if the fire moved into main areas of the lab.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy’s inspector general issued a report that said Los Alamos County firefighters weren’t sufficiently trained to handle the unique fires they could face with hazardous or radioactive materials at LANL.

Lab and fire department officials at the time said the report focused too much on past problems and not enough on what had been done to resolve them. Some problems also were noted in previous reports.

Greg Mello, with the anti-nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said the group doesn’t have enough information “to formulate any views on safety at this point.”

“It is important to remind ourselves that the site has natural hazards … and Murphy’s Law is still about the best enforced law in the state,” he said.

Meanwhile, the biggest blaze in Arizona history was 82 percent contained after burning through 538,000 acres in the White Mountains in northeast Arizona. The fire started May 29 and has destroyed 32 homes. It’s believed to have been caused by a campfire.

And in Colorado, about 100 firefighters are battling a wildfire that broke out in a canyon northwest of Boulder.

Fire officials have put 340 homeowners on standby to evacuate. No structures are immediately threatened by the fire.

In southern Colorado, hot, windy weather has caused a wildfire that’s been burning since June 12 to spread. The Duckett fire grew by about 400 acres over the weekend but it’s not threatening any homes. Most the growth has been in a steep, rugged terrain in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The fire is burning on seven square miles and is 80 percent contained.

© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Census Shows Whites Lose US Majority Among Babies June 23, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time, minorities make up a majority of babies in the U.S., part of a sweeping race change and growing age divide between mostly white, older Americans and predominantly minority youths that could reshape government policies.

Preliminary census estimates also show the share of African-American households headed by women — made up of mostly single mothers — now exceeds African-American households with married couples, a sign of declining U.S. marriages overall but also continuing challenges for black youths without involved fathers.

The findings, based on the latest government data, offer a preview of final 2010 census results being released this summer that provide detailed breakdowns by age, race, and householder relationships such as same-sex couples.

Demographers say the numbers provide the clearest confirmation yet of a changing social order, one in which racial and ethnic minorities will become the U.S. majority by midcentury.

“We’re moving toward an acknowledgment that we’re living in a different world than the 1950s, where married or two-parent heterosexual couples are now no longer the norm for a lot of kids, especially kids of color,” said Laura Speer, coordinator of the Kids Count project for the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“It’s clear the younger generation is very demographically different from the elderly, something to keep in mind as politics plays out on how programs for the elderly get supported,” she said. “It’s critical that children are able to grow to compete internationally and keep state economies rolling.”

Currently, non-Hispanic whites make up just under half of all children 3 years old, which is the youngest age group shown in the Census Bureau’s October 2009 annual survey, its most recent. In 1990, more than 60 percent of children in that age group were white.

William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the data, said figures in the 2009 survey can sometimes be inexact compared with the 2010 census, which queries the entire nation. But he said when factoring in the 2010 data released so far, minorities outnumber whites among babies under age 2.

The preliminary figures are based on an analysis of the Current Population Survey as well as the 2009 American Community Survey, which sampled 3 million U.S. households to determine that whites made up 51 percent of babies younger than 2. After taking into account a larger-than-expected jump in the minority child population in the 2010 census, the share of white babies falls below 50 percent.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia now have white populations below 50 percent among children under age 5 — Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Mississippi. That’s up from six states and the District of Columbia in 2000.

At current growth rates, seven more states could flip to “minority-majority” status among small children in the next decade: Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Connecticut, South Carolina and Delaware.

By contrast, whites make up the vast majority of older Americans — 80 percent of seniors 65 and older and roughly 73 percent of people ages 45-64. Many states with high percentages of white seniors also have particularly large shares of minority children, including Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas and Florida.

“The recent emergence of this cultural generation gap in states with fast growth of young Hispanics has spurred heated discussions of immigration and the use of government services,” Frey said. “But the new census, which will show a minority majority of our youngest Americans, makes plain that our future labor force is absolutely dependent on our ability to integrate and educate a new diverse child population.”

Kenneth Johnson, a sociology professor and senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire, noted that much of the race change is being driven by increases in younger Hispanic women having more children than do white women, who have lower birth rates and as a group are moving beyond their prime childbearing years.

Because minority births are driving the rapid changes in the population, “any institution that touches or is impacted by children will be the first to feel the impact,” Johnson said, citing as an example child and maternal health care that will have to be attentive to minorities’ needs.

The numbers come amid public debate over hotly contested federal and state issues, from immigration and gay marriage to the rising cost of government benefits such as Medicare and Medicaid, that are resonating in different ways by region and demographics.

Alabama became the latest state this month to pass a wide-ranging anti-immigration law, which in part requires schools to report students’ immigration status to state authorities. That follows tough immigration measures passed in similarly Republican-leaning states such as Georgia, Arizona and South Carolina.

But governors in Massachusetts, New York and Illinois, which long have been home to numerous immigrants, have opted out of the federal Secure Communities program that aims to deport dangerous criminals, saying it has made illegal immigrants afraid of reporting crimes to police. California may soon opt out as well.

States also are divided by region over old-age benefits and gay marriage, which is legal in five states and the District of Columbia.

Among African-Americans, U.S. households headed by women — mostly single mothers but also adult women living with siblings or elderly parents — represented roughly 30 percent of all African-American households, compared with the 28 percent share of married-couple African-American households. It was the first time the number of female-headed households surpassed those of married couples among any race group, according to census records reviewed by Frey dating back to 1950.

While the number of black single mothers has been gradually declining, overall marriages among blacks are decreasing faster. That reflects a broader U.S. trend of declining marriage rates as well as increases in non-family households made up of people living alone, or with unmarried partners or other non-relatives.

Female-headed households make up a 19 percent share among Hispanics and 9 percent each for whites and Asians.

Other findings:

—Multigenerational households composed of families with grandparents, parents and children were most common among Hispanics, particularly in California, Maryland, Illinois, Nevada and Texas, all states where they represented nearly 1 in 10 Latino households.

—Roughly 581,000, or a half percent, of U.S. households are composed of same-sex unmarried couples, representing nearly 1 in 10 households with unmarried partners. Unmarried gay couples made up the biggest shares in states in the Northeast and West, led by the District of Columbia, Oregon, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont. The largest numbers were in California and New York, which is now considering a gay marriage law.

—Minorities comprise a majority of renters in 10 states, plus the District of Columbia — Hawaii, Texas, California, Georgia, Maryland, New Mexico, Mississippi, New Jersey, Louisiana and New York.

Tony Perkins, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, a conservative interest group, emphasized the economic impact of the decline of traditional families, noting that single-parent families are often the most dependent on government assistance.

“The decline of the traditional family will have to correct itself if we are to continue as a society,” Perkins said, citing a responsibility of individuals and churches. “We don’t need another dose of big government, but a new Hippocratic oath of ‘do no harm’ that doesn’t interfere with family formation or seek to redefine family.”

© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Winds to Challenge Crews Battling AZ, NM Wildfires June 21, 2011

PHOENIX (AP) — Extremely high winds are expected to challenge firefighters trying to protect homes threatened by a pair of fires in southern and eastern Arizona on Sunday.

The small New Mexico town of Luna is in the path of the massive Wallow Fire burning in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Fire breached a containment line along Highway 180 on Saturday and about 200 residents were ordered to evacuate and remained out of their homes Sunday.

The evacuation order came on the same day that some other residents displaced by the fire that began May 29 were allowed to return home.

The threat to Luna lessened late Saturday but was expected to return Sunday afternoon as wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph were expected to drive the flames.

Only about half the town’s residents actually left, and the rest have been told to stay off the roads so they don’t get in the way of fire crews, Catron County Undersheriff Ian Fletcher said Sunday. Few people went to a Red Cross shelter set up in Reserve, N.M.

“If the fire comes back around or things change where they have to get out, we still have an egress point, so we will still escort them out of town,” Fletcher said. “We’re expected high winds this afternoon — we’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

The blaze has consumed nearly 800 square miles, a little more than 511,000 acres, and more than 3,500 firefighters were trying to stop its advance. The blaze is larger than a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings that had been the largest in state history. Despite its size, the latest fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins. Containment rose to 44 percent Sunday.

In southern Arizona, a wildfire south of Sierra Vista remained 27 percent contained at about 21,000 acres, or nearly 33 square miles. About 44 home already have been destroyed by the Monument fire and about 2,600 homes were evacuated.

Fire information officer Bill Paxton said high winds Sunday morning grounded tankers that have been dropping slurry on the fire. Winds were blowing steadily at about 30 mph with gusts on the ridges of about 50 mph. About 1,000 firefighters were on the lines, and hundreds of state and local police and firefighters were helping in the area.

With summer rains still weeks away, forecasters said fire crews across the region would likely have little relief from the hot, windy weather that has dogged them for days.

Residents of Alpine, Ariz., were allowed to return to their homes Saturday morning after being forced out by the Wallow Fire for more than two weeks, but residents of the resort town of Greer still remained evacuated.

U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who owns a home in Greer, toured the fire area Saturday along with Sen. John McCain and Arizona congressmen Jeff Flake and Paul Gosar.

“Seeing a terrible fire like this is always a wakeup call,” Flake, a Republican who represents Arizona’s 6th district, said in a statement. “Our forest health policies need an overhaul. … In the short term, we need to address regulations that hamper timber salvage in the burnt areas. In the long term, we need to enter into public-private partnerships in order to improve the health of these forests by thinning them.”

Meanwhile, the remaining evacuations from a fire burning on both sides of the New Mexico-Colorado border were lifted Saturday morning for residents of communities outside of Raton, N.M.

Containment on the nearly 28,000-acre Track Fire jumped to 80 percent Sunday morning and fire officials said existing fire lines were holding despite strong winds in the area.

Investigators from New Mexico State Forestry and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway said Saturday that fire apparently was started June 12 by engine exhaust from an all-terrain vehicle.

They said the rider was trespassing onto land owned by BNSF railway through access from nearby private property. The Colfax County Sheriff’s Department was seeking information on the person or persons riding or operating ATVs near the origin of the fire.

Another wildfire in Cochise County, Ariz., called the Horseshoe Two was 75 percent contained after charring about 210,000 acres — nearly 330 square miles.

A fire burning 9 miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., had burned about 900 acres by Sunday morning and was being driven northeast into the Pecos Wilderness, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Alberta Maez said. The fire broke out Saturday and was not threatening any structures, but hikers and residents In the Santa Fe Ski Basin, Aspen Basin, Aspen Vista, and Big Tesuque were told to be ready to leave is necessary.

U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell visited the Arizona fire operations Saturday to assess the progress.

All of the Arizona wildfires are believed to be human caused. Investigators believe a campfire was the most likely cause of the Wallow fire.

Authorities in southern New Mexico were also looking for “persons of interest” as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso.

Also around the West, fires still were burning near Yakima, Wash., and in southern Colorado. A wildfire near St. George, Utah, was fully contained after scorching more than 1,000 acres of federal and stare rangelands.

© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Army Ditches Black Berets in Favor of Caps June 15, 2011

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It’s hot, it doesn’t keep the sun out of your eyes, and you need two hands and a mirror to make sure it’s on straight. After 10 years of complaints, the Army is all but ditching the black wool beret and allowing soldiers to go back to the old brimmed patrol cap for their everyday duties.

“It’s the military equivalent of being able to wear a baseball cap to work,” said Col. Pete Brooks of the South Carolina Army National Guard. “Wearing the beret in 100-degree South Carolina heat was like wearing a wet piece of black wool on your head.”

Army Secretary John McHugh ordered the change to take effect Tuesday, the service’s 236th birthday.

Elite units in the 1.1-million-member Army will continue to wear their colored berets as a mark of honor — green for Special Forces, tan for Rangers, maroon for airborne troops. But from now on, other soldiers will have to pull out the black beret only for special events, such as change-of-command ceremonies. Soldiers, of course, will still wear their helmets in combat.

“This just makes things a little bit easier for us,” said Staff Sgt. Mylinda DuRousseau, who works with the 3rd Army at nearby Shaw Air Force Base. She said working as a cook meant she had to keep her shoulder-length hair tied back in a bun, which couldn’t fit under the tight beret.

And then there was the three-step process of putting the thing on right: First, adjust the blue patch over the left eye; next, use two hands to straighten it; then, pull it on far enough so it stayed put, DuRousseau said.

In fact, the Army had to install mirrors at entries and exits so soldiers could be sure they had it on properly.

As for the patrol cap — a soft, 50-50 cotton-nylon blend that looks like a flat-top baseball hat in camouflage green — “you could reach in your pocket and flip it on, and just keep moving,” Brooks said.

The change is one of several new uniform adjustments, including allowing soldiers to either sew or use Velcro to attach insignia and nametags. In the past, badges had to be pinned on, a lengthy process that required the use of a ruler to keep everything lined up. Another switch will be a return to dressier uniforms for Army men and women inside the Pentagon, a step ordered to spiff up the Army’s image.

The uniform changes — especially the dropping of the beret — were popular on the Army’s Facebook page, which registered at least 3,000 “likes” after the switch was made.

The black beret became standard a decade ago, introduced in a surprise move by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki as a “symbol of unity” and a morale booster. But elite units that were distinguishable by their berets resented the change.

Lt. Col. Jeff Hannon, who works for the Army chief of staff in the Pentagon, had mixed feelings about the dropping of the beret.

“Under some circumstances it is clearly a good-looking piece of headgear” and more formal than the cap, he said.

But Hannon and others said the cap is more utilitarian because it affords protection against the sun when troops are out in the field. Hannon was showing his wife and young sons around the Pentagon on Tuesday amid the Army’s birthday celebration.

“I actually liked the beret,” said Hannon’s wife, Katherine. “I thought it looked so much better than the cap, a little more sophisticated.”

___

Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this story.

Susanne M. Schafer can be reached at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap

© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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