Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Top 5 Most Charitable U.S. Cities and States

a camper and counselor at tanglewood 4-h camp and learning center learn how to make birch bark boats

Volunteers perform invaluable service to their communities.
Photo: Tanglewood 4-H Camp and Learning Center

Let it never be said that Americans aren't a generous or charitable people. In fact, the most comprehensive research on U.S. volunteering ever assembled has just been released, and the numbers are encouraging -- particularly given the soft economy and an uncertain global future.

Today the results of the Volunteering in America report were unveiled, based on six years of data, by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the USA Freedom Corps. The data show that nearly 61 million Americans volunteered in their communities in 2007, giving 8.1 billion hours of service worth more than $158 billion. As the report authors point out, many factors have made it easier for ordinary folk to give of themselves, from broad adoption by companies of social and environmental responsibility initiatives to support from local governments, faith-based and community service groups and much more.

Nationally, 60.8 million or 26.2 percent of Americans age 16 and older volunteered through organizations in 2007. After a 6% dip in volunteers between 2005 and 2006, volunteering levels stabilized in 2007. Notably, the study reported that today's young people are volunteering at higher rates than the last generation (perhaps those Gen Xers really were too jaded), while Baby Boomers are expected to move into their Golden Years with a strong commitment to community service.

Volunteer time spent was pretty evenly distributed among fundraising, collecting and distributing food, general labor and tutoring/teaching. The religious, educational and social services sectors saw the biggest contributions. It is currently unclear if data has been specifically tabulated on volunteering on behalf of the environment, though such efforts are clearly covered in the overall numbers.

In addition to analyzing data across the country, the report looked at how volunteers and non-volunteers spend time. The largest difference was, perhaps not surprisingly, in how much time people spend watching TV. In a typical week, volunteers spend 15 hours with the boob tube, compared to 23 hours for non-volunteers. That difference adds up to more than 400 hours in a year. Volunteers were also more likely to spend more of their day interacting with others.

Women were more likely to volunteer than men (30.6% versus 23.6%). College towns had a particularly high rate of service, and the region with the highest percentage was the Midwest.

Most Generous States, By Volunteer Hours

1. Utah, 43.9%
2. Nebraska, 39.8%
3. Minnesota, 39.7%
4. Alaska 38.6%
5. Montana 38.0%

Most Generous Mid-Size Cities, By Volunteer Hours

1. Provo, Utah 63.8%
2. Iowa City, Iowa 45.1%
3. Madison, Wis., 42.3%
4. Greenville, S.C. 41.0%
5. Ogden, Utah 41.0%

Most Generous Large Cities, By Volunteer Hours

1. Minneapolis-St. Paul, 39.3%
2.Salt Lake City, 37.2%
3. Portland, Oregon 35.6%
4. Seattle, 35.5%
5. Austin, 35.3%

(National average: 27.2%)

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Aging impairs the 'replay' of memories during sleep

Aging impairs the consolidation of memories during sleep, a process important in converting new memories into long-term ones, according to new animal research in the July 30 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings shed light on normal memory mechanisms and how they are disrupted by aging.

During sleep, the hippocampus, a brain region important in learning and memory, repeatedly "replays" brain activity from recent awake experiences. This replay process is believed to be important for memory consolidation. In the new study, Carol Barnes, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Arizona found reduced replay activity during sleep in old compared to young rats, and rats with the least replay activity performed the worst in tests of spatial memory.

Barnes and colleagues recorded hippocampal activity in 11 young and 11 old rats as they navigated several mazes for food rewards. Later, when the animals were asleep, the researchers recorded their hippocampal activity again. In the young animals, the sequence of neural activity recorded while the animals navigated the mazes was repeated when they slept. However, in most of the old animals, the sequence of neural activity recorded during sleep did not reflect the sequence of brain activity recorded in the maze.

"These findings suggest that some of the memory impairment experienced during aging could involve a reduction in the automatic process of experience replay," said Michael Hasselmo, DPhil, at Boston University, an expert unaffiliated with the study.

Animals with more faithful sleep replay also performed better on memory tests. The researchers tested the same 22 rats on a spatial learning and memory task. Consistent with previous research, the young rats recalled the solution to the spatial task faster and more accurately than the old rats. In the old group, the researchers found that the top performers in the spatial memory task were also the ones that showed the best sleep replay. Irrespective of the animal's age, the researchers found that animals who more faithfully replayed the sequence of neural activity recorded in the maze while asleep also performed better on the spatial memory task.

"This is the first study to suggest that an animal's ability to perform a spatial memory task may be related to the brain's ability to perform memory consolidation during sleep," said study author Barnes.

Identification of the specific memory deficit present in the aging brain may be a first step to preventing age-related memory loss. "This study's findings could inspire the development and testing of pharmacological agents designed to enhance memory replay phenomena," Hasselmo said.

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How Bad Are iPods for Your Hearing?

Hearing loss is more common than ever before. About 16% of American adults have an impaired ability to hear speech, and more than 30% of Americans over age 20 — an estimated 55 million people — have lost some high-frequency hearing, according to a new study published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The finding has got experts — and concerned parents — wondering anew: Does listening to loud music through headphones lead to long-term hearing loss? Brian Fligor, director of diagnostic audiology at Children's Hospital Boston, explains how much damage your headphone habit might cause — and how to mitigate your risk.

Q: How much hearing loss does an iPod cause?

A: It depends on the person, it depends on how long you're listening, and it depends on the level at which you're setting your iPod.

If you're using the earbuds that come with an iPod and you turn the volume up to about 90% of maximum and you listen a total of two hours a day, five days a week, our best estimates are that the people who have more sensitive ears will develop a rather significant degree of hearing loss — on the order of 40 decibels (dB). That means the quietest sounds audible are 40 dB loud. Now, this is high-pitched hearing loss, so a person can still hear sounds and understand most speech. The impact is going to be most clearly noted when the background-noise level goes up, when you have to focus on what someone is saying. Then it can really start to impair your ability to communicate.

This would happen only after about 10 years or so or even more of listening to a personal audio device. One patient I had used his headphones instead of earplugs when he was on his construction job. He thought as long as he could hear his music over the sound of his saws, he was protecting his ears — because he liked the sound of his music but didn't like the sound of the construction noise. He had a good 50 dB to 55 dB of noise-induced hearing loss at 28 years old. We asked a few pointed questions about when he was having difficulty understanding people, and his response was classic. "When I'm sitting at home with the TV off, I can understand just fine," he said, "but when I go out for dinner, I have trouble."

There is huge variation in how people are affected by loud sound, however, and this is an area where a number of researchers are conducting studies. Certainly a huge part of this is underlying genetics. We know how much sound causes how much hearing loss based on studies that were conducted in the late '60s and early '70s, before employers were required to protect workers' hearing in noisy work environments. What was found is that when people are exposed to a certain level of noise every day for a certain duration, they're going to have a certain degree of hearing loss on average. But the amount of hearing loss might differ by as much as 30 dB between people who had the toughest ears and those with the most tender ones — a huge variation. Unfortunately, we don't know who has the tougher ears and who has the tender ones until after they've lost their hearing. So, as a clinician, I have to treat everyone as if they had tender ears.

Particularly with noise-induced hearing loss, the primary area where the ear is damaged is not the eardrum, not the part of the ear that you can see and not the bones that are inside the middle ear — it is actually deeper inside. It's where the nerve that brings the sound message up to the brain connects with the inner ear, and it involves some very specialized cells. These are hair cells, and specifically we're looking at the outer hair cells. When they're overexposed or stimulated at too high a level for too long a duration, they end up being metabolically exhausted. They are overworked. They temporarily lose their function, so sound has to be made louder in order for you to hear it. These cells can recover after a single exposure, but if you overexpose them often enough, they end up dying, and you lose that functional ability inside your inner ear. The cells that die are not replaceable.

As far as a rule of thumb goes, the figures we got in our studies were that people using that standard earbud could listen at about 80% of maximum volume for 90 minutes per day or less without increasing their risk for noise-induced hearing loss. But the louder the volume, the shorter your duration should be. At maximum volume, you should listen for only about 5 minutes a day.

I don't want to single out iPods. Any personal listening device out there has the potential to be used in a way that will cause hearing loss. We've conducted studies of a few MP3 players and found very similar results across the MP3 manufacturers. Some in-the-ear earphones are capable of providing higher sound levels than some over-the-ear earphones. That said, studies we've done on behavior show that the type of earphones has almost nothing to do with the level at which people set their headphones. It's all dictated by the level of background noise in their listening environment. When we put people in different listening environments, like flying in an airplane — we used noise we'd recorded while flying on a Boeing 757 commercial flight, and we simulated that environment in our lab — 80% of people listened at levels that would eventually put their hearing at risk. On the subway system here in Boston, the ambient noise levels are very comparable to the level on an airplane, although it sounds very different. The noise is sufficiently high that it induces people to listen to their headphones at excessively loud volume.

I'm a self-professed loud-music listener. I use my iPod at the gym, and I love it. I think it's one of the greatest inventions ever. I even advocate that people listen to music as loud as they want. But in order to listen as loud as you want, you need to be careful about how long you're listening. I would also strongly recommend that people invest in better earphones that block out background noise. Some of the research we did studied earphones that completely seal up the ear canal. These are passive sound-isolating earphones, as opposed to the ones that are active noise cancelers that block out some of the noise. As far as I can tell, both would allow people to listen to their headphones at their chosen level — and more likely at a lower volume than if they were using the stock earbuds.

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Bill targets toy safety

|Chicago Tribune reporters

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators settled months of debate over product safety on Monday, and in nearly every detail—including lead levels in toys, safety information for consumers and fines for violating the new rules—stricter standards won out.

Proponents called the agreement the most aggressive overhaul in decades of America's consumer safety system. It was announced by a bipartisan conference committee and could pass the House and Senate as soon as this week. President George W. Bush is expected to sign it.

The deal would require manufacturers and importers to subject toys and other nursery products to strict safety tests before they hit store shelves. Some companies with sophisticated labs could conduct the tests themselves, a provision consumer groups opposed.

The legislation would phase in a near-ban on lead in products designed for children 12 and younger and create an easily searchable database of consumer complaints about a product's safety. The law would set an allowable lead standard of 600 parts per million within 180 days, 300 ppm after one year, and 100 ppm after three years. The precise amount of lead that can cause harm in a child remains a matter of debate. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission would review the limit and could lower it still further.

It would increase the size and budget of the agency, expand government oversight of imported goods, impose new safety standards on all-terrain vehicles and ban six controversial compounds used in plastics. It would also protect whistle-blowers exposing faulty products, allow state attorneys general to pull dangerous products from store shelves and increase fines for safety violations to as high as $15 million.

The legislation grew out of hearings prompted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Tribune investigation that documented how the CPSC failed to promptly notify American families about deadly hazards lurking in toys, cribs and other children's products. Several Illinois lawmakers played key roles in crafting the bill, including three Democrats, Sen. Dick Durbin and Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Bobby Rush, whose name is attached to the final version of the bill.

"It's a really strong, strong bill," said Schakowsky, who has focused on product safety reform for much of her House career. "It really, in many ways, is the birth of a new agency that will have much broader authority, particularly to keep our children safe."

Durbin said the bill "sets safety standards so we can avoid the nightmare we faced last Christmas"—when recalls and reports of lead in popular toys frayed consumers' nerves.

Public database

Disclosure of safety complaints in a publicly searchable database is a historic shift from the current system, which was set up three decades ago to protect manufacturers' reputations. To obtain such information now, consumers must file requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and manufacturers can block or delay release of that information. The new law allows manufacturers to respond to complaints and lets the CPSC remove those it finds to be inaccurate.

"This database will let consumers learn more about hazards and make more informed decisions when trying to purchase a product," said Rachel Weintraub, an attorney for the Consumer Federation of America who lobbied for the bill. "The goal is to end the manufacturers' veto on information."

Jim Neill, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, countered that the database will allow "rumor and innuendo" to smear safe products.

While Neill says his organization supports a stronger CPSC, he lamented that the bill could have "unintended consequences that could potentially harm American employers and employees."

'Patchwork of laws' criticized

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is upset that that law leaves room for states to pass their own, stricter safety standards rather than ruling that the new federal rules trump them, said Thomas Myers, an attorney for the chamber.

"Manufacturers are going to have a difficult time because they're going to have a patchwork of laws to deal with," Myers said. "Theoretically, they can have 50 different laws their products have to comply with."

Rush, who underwent cancer surgery in March, plans to return to Capitol Hill this week and hopes to see the measure pass before the House and Senate adjourn for an August recess. In a statement, he lauded colleagues "who worked virtually around the clock to ensure that this important piece of legislation becomes law this year."

Some consumer groups complained that several months passed between the Senate's approval of the bill in March and the conference committee agreement. But Durbin said he was impressed.

"This really has been a pretty good run, to dramatically change consumer safety law in a year," he said. "That's pretty good, by Washington standards."

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Diners flock to flooded restaurant

The owner of a flooded restaurant in China scrapped plans to close it down - after business picked up.

Diners in Xiangfan are enjoying the novelty of eating their meals in ankle-deep water, reports Xinhua Net.

News of the flooded restaurant spread and the restaurant is now packed with diners while waitresses say they are struggling to keep up with orders.

The owner said he was prepared to temporarily close the restaurant after the heaviest rains for 50 years brought floods to the city.

But he had a change of heart when he heard how the eatery's new wet look was bringing in the customers.

"It's very cool. Not only in temperature, but also for a fun new way of having a meal," said one diner.

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Ten Even More Weird and Bizarre Japanese Soft Drinks

What is it with Japan and weird drinks? Part of the answer lies in the love Japanese have for soft drinks – surveys show that about 40% of the nation's citizens drink at least one soft drink every day. That's about 50 million people!

In addition, trends come and go very quickly in Japan. What's cool today is as flat as warm Pepsi Ice Cucumber tomorrow... so soft drink companies are constantly coming out with something new and (hopefully) attention-grabbing 'cause one success more than makes up for dozens of failures.

Our list comprises the bad, the even more bad and the downright ugly, and we'll lead off the same way last year's list did – with Pepsi Japan's latest weird summer soft drink!

10) Pepsi Blue Hawaii

Wasn't there already a blue Pepsi, called umm, er, oh yeah - Pepsi Blue? It faded from the scene fairly quickly; a fate certain to be shared by Pepsi Blue Hawaii. Flavored with Pineapple and Lemon, you just know PBH is going to be sweeter than Hello Kitty in insulin shock – actually, it would probably be her IV drip.

9) Fanta Furufuru Shaker

Ever made Jello using 7-Up or Grape Crush instead of cold water? The gelatin retains a little carbonation after it cools. Fanta's Furufuru Shaker seems to be designed on the same principle; a semi-gelled drink that gets fizzy when you shake it. I don't know how you drink it... you'd need a fairly wide straw, if not a spoon. (via Japan Marketing News)

Anyway, all weirdness aside, the most interesting thing about Fanta Furufuru Shaker is the so-called Shaker Dance performed by official Fanta spokesmodel Rika Ishikawa. That girl can really shake her cans... can... erm, just watch the video...

8) Melon Milk

I've actually had Pokka's Melon Milk; both it and a Strawberry Milk version are sold in smallish cans at some Asian markets here in Toronto. It's rather popular in Japan, as are the many varieties of canned coffee Pokka makes.

Melon Milk doesn't taste bad... it does taste kinda strange though. Sort of like milk, with a melony overtone. You sip some, think “that can't be right”, then sip a little more. Before you know it you've drained the whole can – all part of Pokka's dastardly plan, no doubt. Melon is actually a major fruit flavor in Japan. If it's green & fruity, there's probably a melon involved. Consider yourself warned.

7) Bilk

Bilk... according to my dictionary, it means “to cheat out of something valuable”. It also makes a terrible name for a new drink – unless that drink is an unholy marriage of milk and beer, in which case it's entirely appropriate. Besides, Japanese dairy farmers are pretty much swimming in surplus milk and if Bilk doesn't work out they could resort to something truly awful, like a cheese drink (shudder).

Bilk... 70% beer, 30% milk, 100% disgusting. Supposedly, Bilk possesses a subtle sweetness that women should find most appealing. Beer bellies, belches and lactose intolerance, not so much. Bilk can be bought at 6 outlets in Japan's northern province of Hokkaido where bears outnumber humans 2:1. Guess they like the stuff, for their pic-a-nic baskets and all. (via Japan Probe)

6) NEEDS Cheese Drink

Well, you balked at Bilk so now it's come to this: NEEDS Cheese Drink. Nuh-uh, that's where I draw the line. I prefer to enjoy my cheese in the solid state, thank you, where I can shave off a paper-thin slice with that fiendish cheese-shaving knife. NEEDS Cheese Drink, I don't needs.

In fact, it seems the only ones who DO needs NEEDS are those pesky dairy farmers in Hokkaido, who “needs” to do something about growing stocks of surplus milk. If only there was something, sort of like a baby but still a cow, who could drink the surplus milk... ah well, never mind. (via F*cked Gaijin)

5) Hawaiian Deep-Sea Water

Remember those old movies, when a few shipwreck survivors are stuck in a lifeboat, dying of thirst? And one guy can't stand it anymore and starts drinking seawater, which drives him INSANE??

Koyo USA Corp wants you to forget all that. The maker of MaHaLo brand “Hawaiian Deep-Sea Water” is making a killing on desalinated deep ocean water thirst-crazed Japanese are falling all over themselves to buy... at between $4 and $6 per 1.5 liter bottle, no less.

Koyo USA Corp produces 200,000 bottles of processed seawater a day and can barely keep up with demand in Japan. According to company spokesman John Frosted, “At this point, we can't make enough. We have no surplus.”

Thank goodness for that, because the thought of seawater beer or seawater cheese drink would drive ME insane!

4) Kid's Wine

Kid's Wine – not just a road trip complaint anymore! Kid's Beer topped our list last time around, but did you know the same company, Sangaria, makes “wine” specially made for children? They also make their website play the cheesiest, most annoying music ever heard online. Maybe you have to be drunk on Kid's Wine to truly appreciate it.

3) Placenta Drink

From Kid's Wine to Kid Swine... Ahh, the things women will do to stay young and beautiful for us!

Thank you ladies, really... but there comes a point where bizarre beauty potions intended to make you luscious, just make us nauseous – and Nihon Shokuten's eerie series of placenta products are a prime example.

Made with swine placenta, the drink carries the automotive-sounding name of "Placenta 400000" - perhaps it's made from the ground & pressed extract of 400,000 placentas? Nihon Shokuten's not telling, but their revolting beverage should come pre-packaged with mints because there's nothing worse than placenta-breath in the morning.

2) Eel Soda

Unagi-Nobori soda is no ordinary energy drink, oh no... this terrific tonic is infused with a generous helping of eel extract. If you think there's something fishy about that, you're unfortunately right.

According to Japanese folk tradition, eating eel is reputed to give one extra energy on summer's hottest, most humid days.

These days though, one doesn't always have time for a leisurely lunch of delicious barbecued eel.

No problem – Unagi Nobori bottles essence of eel along with 5 essential vitamins in a carbonated medium. Make my medium small, if you don't mind... and by the way, Unagi Nobori is brought to you by the nice folks at Japan Tobacco, known for "healthy" products with smoky flavors. (via Japan Marketing News)

1) Okkikunare Drinks

Okkikunare is Japanese for “make them bigger”, and do I really have to tell you what “them” refers to? Well, maybe I do - lest guys with macho issues rush to place orders, the apple, peach and mango flavored drinks are quite popular among teenage girls in Japan.

Made by a comapny called Welcia, the special bust-boosting ingredient in Okkikunare drinks is powdered Arrowroot containing the same sort of isoflavones found in soybeans, which are said to “stimulate the female hormone system.”

Seems a little sketchy to me... then again, the drinks are also sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to obesity. Therefore, EVERYTHING gets bigger the more you drink, not just the, umm, apples, peaches and mangos. (via DumpSoda)

And there you have it, Ten Even More Weird and Bizarre Japanese Soft Drinks. And, in case you were wondering, no Pocari Sweat again this time. Not even the doggie version, “Pet Sweat”. Odd as it sounds, Japan can do much better... or worse, as the case may be.

So, consider yourself warned, Japan can pack a few surprises for the unwary, thirsty traveler. Be sure to pack some Canned Bottled Water on your next trip there – it's lighter than the Bottled Canned Water and likely has even fewer calories!

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Dining Chains Shut Doors


After filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the parent company of national chains Bennigan's and Steak and Ale on Tuesday shut hundreds of restaurants, putting thousands of employees out of work.

Getty Images
Hundreds of Bennigan's restaurants have been shut.

The move by privately held Plano, Texas-based Metromedia Restaurant Group knocks down two sit-down chains that have been part of the country's casual-dining landscape for decades.

About 200 restaurants were closed immediately, including all of the remaining 50 or so Steak and Ales. The filing eliminates full and part-time jobs for more than 9,200 employees, many of those in Texas, Florida and Illinois, three people familiar with the matter said.

Another 138 franchisee-owned Bennigan's sites aren't part of the filing and intend to remain open. They face a more uncertain future, however, given they'll no longer have the full support of parent company Metromedia Restaurant Group, a unit of billionaire John Kluge's Metromedia empire.

A company spokeswoman, Leah Templeton, declined to answer specific questions about the closings and the filing. In an email, she said that stores operated by franchisees are not named as debtors in the filings, and that future decisions regarding the affairs of the debtor companies will be determined and administered by a bankruptcy trustee.

[John Kluge]

In addition to Bennigan's and Steak and Ale, the filing includes a handful of Tavern restaurants, an experimental concept at Metromedia. It doesn't include the company's Ponderosa and Bonanza restaurants, which operate under Metromedia Steakhouses Co., she said.

The filing marked one of the largest Chapter 7 bankruptcies of a restaurant chain in recent history, according to restaurant consultancy Technomic, and is the most extreme sign yet of how midprice, sit-down restaurants are undergoing one of their worst periods in decades. Challenger, Gray & Christmas says the resulting layoffs constitute the sixth-largest mass job cut of the year.

High ingredient and labor costs are eating into profits, and several years of rapid expansion by bar and grill chains has left a glut of locations in the market. Pressures such as high gasoline prices and dwindling home values have prompted consumers to eat out less often or switch to cheaper fast-food meals.

Restaurant pioneer Norman Brinker founded Steak and Ale in 1966 in Dallas. The chain, with its dimly lit dining rooms, has billed itself as offering an upscale steak experience at lower prices. It was seen as a model for the casual-dining steakhouse chain, and many executives there went on to run other large chains.

Bennigan's, founded in Atlanta in 1976, expanded rapidly across the country in the 1990s, opening hundreds of its pub-themed restaurants to entice diners with over-size sandwich platters and happy hours. Irish-themed Bennigan's is known for fried Monte Cristo sandwiches, walls cluttered with antique photos and slightly lower prices than its rivals, like three-course meals for $10.99.

The venerable chains weren't able to survive in part because their menus and atmosphere failed to set them apart from the pack, said Ron Paul, president of restaurant consultancy Technomic.

"There's just too many stores in this category," said Mr. Paul, whose firm has done work for Metromedia. "Most of these places aren't even that full on a Saturday night." Chains have already started slowing their expansion and shutting locations, and Mr. Paul expects that will accelerate.

Other large national chains that have filed for bankruptcy this year include Vicorp Restaurants Inc.'s Bakers Square and Village Inn and Buffets Inc.'s Old Country Buffet. Those chains, however, are trying to restructure and eventually emerge from bankruptcy, while Bennigan's and Steak and Ale are planning to liquidate.

Metromedia Restaurant Group earlier this year violated terms of a lending agreement with GE Capital Solutions. It had been in negotiations with lenders since last year to stave off the filing, while closing about 75 stores and looking for a buyer, said two people involved in the matter.

The Bennigan's Grill and Tavern in Arvada, Colo.

Metromedia's largest lenders are GE and the Bank of New York, which also own most of the chains' real estate. Over the past year, the parent company has had to contribute about $100 million to meet payroll and some debt obligations, these people said.

Late Monday, managers at Bennigan's and Steak and Ale were called or emailed and told not to open restaurants the next day, according to two people familiar with the matter. Employees were told there wouldn't be enough money to pay them for the rest of the week, these people said.

The abrupt shutdown took employees and customers by surprise. At a closed Bennigan's in downtown Chicago on Tuesday, tables were still stacked with rolls of silverware, ketchup and menus, and the neon signs remained lit. Posted on the doors, however, were paper signs that read: "Sorry we are closed."

A hostess at that location, who declined to give her name, said she worked until midnight on Monday and was given no indication the store was in trouble. "I was kind of shocked," she said.

A growing number of struggling companies are opting to liquidate rather than try to restructure in bankruptcy. Bankruptcy lawyers say many are caught between a slowing economy, a lack of bankruptcy financing and loose, covenant-lite bank agreements that allowed their financial situations to worsen before creditors could intervene.

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Eel Drink Goes On Sale For Japan's Hot Summer

(AP) It's the hottest season of the year in Japan, and that means it's eel season. So, bottom's up!

A canned drink called "Unagi Nobori," or "Surging Eel," made by Japan Tobacco Inc., hit the nation's stores this month just ahead of Japan's annual eel-eating season, company spokesman Kazunori Hayashi said Monday.

"It's mainly for men who are exhausted by the summer's heat," Hayashi said of the beverage, believed to be the first mass-produced eel drink in Japan.

Many Japanese believe eating eel boosts stamina in hot weather.

The fizzy, yellow-colored drink contains extracts from the head and bones of eel and five vitamins _ A, B1, B2, D and E _ contained in the fish.

The Japanese particularly like to eat eel on traditional eel days, which fall on July 24 and Aug. 5 this year.

Demand for eel is so high that Japan has been hit by scores of eel fraud cases, including a recent high-profile incident in which a government ministry publicly scolded two companies for mislabeling eel imported from China as being domestically grown.

The eel involved in recent scandals was prepared in a popular "kaba-yaki" style, in which it is broiled and covered with a sweet sauce. The $1.30 drink costs about one-tenth as much as broiled eel, but has a similar flavor.

Eel extract is also used in cookies and pies made in Japan's biggest eel producing town, Hamamatsu.

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The Amazing Effects of Nitrous Oxide (On Your Car)

I’ve had a long abiding interest in the effects of Nitrous Oxide. In college, I convinced a seller of nitrous tanks that I was an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and that I teach a class where we build high altitude miniature rockets using the stuff.

I had seen a feature of nitrous propelled rockets the night previous on the Discovery channel.

“Now, I know this may sound bizarre dear, but my students and I build these miniature rockets, and we use the nitrous oxide as a oxidizer, we have all sorts of expensive equipment. It’s a hell of a set up, you should really check it out. These little bastards get up to the freaking stratosphere, it’s really amazing!”

So I walked out of there with a brand new large-sized nitrous oxide tank and information on where to get it filled. The fillers strangely didn’t care if I was a professor or a creepy weirdo ready to expose this strange dissociative drug gas to schoolchildren, they just filled me up and took my money.

Those were good times.

My Interest Shifts

After being interested in N2O for a year or so, a friend of mine who owns a detail shop decided to start installing nitrous oxide systems in cars for the purposes of crazy speed, and started on his very own 1996 Ford Taurus. So at the Atco Raceway in beautiful Atco New Jersey, he unloaded the nitrous Taurus, and in all the days of my life I swear I had never seen a production vehicle go so fast. This poor Ford Taurus, The King of the American Roads, after apparently breaking the speed of light and bending physics around it, was utterly destroyed by the effects of the nitrous oxide. The engine had exploded, the pistons cracked, one of the axles was broken.

From that day forward, I was more interested in the automotive benefits of nitrous than any fleeting pleasures of the flesh it may offer.

Now, I have to add that despite what many people would have you believe, the nitrous in cars is the same stuff that people at concert parking lots inhale, which is the same stuff they give you at the dentist, and the same stuff they use in whip cream canisters. It has many uses.

There is one thing to consider though, often times auto racing nitrous has a bad bad chemical called sulfur dioxide in it, put in there for the sole purpose of trying to stop people from inhaling it. If you inhale sulfur dioxide, you’ll probably just gag and immediately get sick and never try that again; but there is the off chance that you may die, so you know, don’t do that.

How it works

The thing about nitrous is that it’s not flammable, it’s not like shoving butane or propane in your engine (although racers do that sometimes too). Nitrous is an oxidizer; that means the only thing that nitrous does is provide your engine with more oxygen. It actually also lowers the temperature in the intake manifold, which lets more air/fuel into the engine, but thats just a secondary benefit. The main thing is more oxygen, that’s it. That’s the whole purpose of NOS systems.

Don’t let it fool you though, nitrous oxide is more than just a chemical turbocharger, it’s powerful medicine. At the most basic level, combustion is just fuel plus oxygen. Increase either one drastically, and you’re upping the power drastically. With nitrous, you can increase your engine power literally up to thousands of horsepower, that’s enough to do very permanent damage.

You can destroy your engine with it, blow out your seals, crack your pistons, break apart the inner workings, even make it explode in a fireball of hilarious gas. The last of which I have seen firsthand. Also, it can make you go very very fast.

This stuff is no joke. Be careful with it.

Keep your eyes peeled because in a future article I’ll go over some of the different types of nitrous systems (dry or wet or single port or direct port, 2 or 3 or 4 stage, etc).

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10 great deals on used crossover SUVs

2006 Mercedes-Benz R-class
2006 Mercedes-Benz R-class
6-month value drop: $9,950*
Average value now: $22,250*
Mileage: 22 mpg Hwy, 16 mpg City

It's no secret that used SUV prices have been collapsing as gas prices have shot up. But now prices are dropping for used crossover SUVs, which get better mileage, but are still thirstier than cars.

Some of these crossovers - SUV-like vehicles with smaller engines and car-like engineering - have been on the market long enough so that redesigned versions are out. That also means big discounts on the old versions.

We worked with analysts at Kelley Blue Book to find a few gems that this pricing drop has unearthed. If you're in the market, this could be a great time to pick-up a relatively fuel-efficient used crossover. (The prices shown here reflect the vehicles' "cash value," according to KBB. Asking prices from used car dealers will usually be higher.)

Check out the Mercedes-Benz R-class. In just the past 6 months, values have dropped by almost $10,000, or almost 31%. That reflects the trouble the R-class has had finding its niche in the American SUV market.

"There has been such a proliferation of vehicles in the Mercedes-Benz line-up that the R-class has taken a hit," said Jack Nerad, managing editor of Kelley Blue Book's Web site.

Longer and lower than its close relative, the M-class SUV, the R-class looks a lot like a minivan with van-like spaciousness. But inside you'll find the opulence you expect in a Mercedes-Benz SUV.

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Startup Converting Ford F-150s Into 41 MPG Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles