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Surprise trades could pit Shaq against Kobe

At first, you might think, “Cool.” And then you might think, “aw, hell, Shaq and Kobe, that will get hyped so much that the fun will get sucked right out of it, and besides, I got sick of Shaq and Kobe three years ago.”

But think this through. Shaq vs. Kobe is one of the great Shakespearean sports dramas of this generation — maybe the greatest. They were two of the top five players in the world. They won three straight titles, then made the NBA Finals again, but they still couldn’t stand to be around each other, so Shaq got traded.

It would be like if the Patriots had LaDainian Tomlinson all these years, then shipped him out because he didn’t get along with Tom Brady.

Shaq-Kobe in this year’s conference finals could be the grand conclusion. It would be the ultimate tiebreaker in their feud. If Kobe and the Lakers won, he could finally win his coveted Shaq-free title, convince the last skeptics he has become a team player and establish himself as one of the 10 best players ever. Plus, he would get the supreme satisfaction of knowing he ruined Shaq’s last chance at a title.

But if Shaq and his new Phoenix Suns teammates won … well, one could then make the argument that Shaq was the ultimate difference-maker in NBA history. He would have taken four franchises to the Finals. He would be four wins away from his fifth championship. And he would send a message that he, not Kobe, was most responsible for those three Lakers championships.

Just a week ago, the prospect of either man winning a championship this year seemed remote. But then the Lakers stole Pau Gasol from Memphis for a ridiculous package including Gasol’s own brother, Marc. (A lot of people have asked: What was Memphis thinking? I’ll tell you exactly what Memphis was thinking: “We’re the Grizzlies, nobody’s paying attention anyway, we’ll just tell people it’s the same Gasol and they won’t know the difference.”)

Then Miami shipped Shaq to Phoenix. It says a lot about Shaq’s free fall that he was traded for a gifted but overpaid malcontent, and people think the team that got Shaq is stupid.

The critics could be right. Shaq is not remotely the same force that he was even two years ago — he needs a note from his doctor before he attempts to jump, his shots look horrible and he can’t move laterally to avoid a fire. Now Shaq is joining the run-and-gun Suns. He is supposed to make his debut as soon as he is healthy, but I don’t see how, since it will take him three months to catch up with the rest of his team.

But then again … maybe Shaq still has one run left. It’s not inconceivable.

Look at the NBA standings. Does anybody strike you as a dominant team? Dallas is still a major postseason question mark. New Orleans is a wonderful story, but totally untested in the playoffs. Utah is up and down. San Antonio is probably the Western Conference favorite, just on principle, but are the Spurs invincible?

In this league, the Bryant-Gasol-Andrew Bynum Lakers have as good a chance as anybody of winning the title. I’m not so sure about the Shaq Suns — this is a bizarre chemistry experiment, and nobody knows how it will turn out.

But if it somehow works, everybody better watch out. Including Shaq’s old teammate and nemesis.


Scams that target your retirement

Ed and Ruthann Wolfe just wanted a safe place for their retirement savings. During his 32 years at the Rubbermaid plant in Wooster, Ohio, Ed had amassed more than $320,000 in his 401(k), all of it invested in low-risk Fidelity mutual funds.

After Newell bought Rubbermaid in 1999, early-retirement offers were made to more than 180 plant employees, including Ed, then 55. Around the same time, many of his colleagues began attending investing seminars hosted by a Merrill Lynch broker, who was telling investors they could earn more money if they retired than if they stayed on the job.

“There was a buzz going around the shop about how good this could be,” Ed recalls. “We thought we couldn’t afford not to do it.”

The Wolfes turned over their entire $320,000 in retirement savings to the broker, with instructions to keep their money in low-risk investments because they needed to start making withdrawals right away. So they weren’t concerned when the stock market tumbled in 2001.

Then they began hearing from friends whose investments had declined in value. Ruthann called the broker and was shocked to find out that they’d have to stop withdrawing money or would go broke. Their retirement stash, which the broker had invested in high-risk Internet and tech companies, had plunged to less than $100,000.

“I felt it could be the end of the world,” says Ed, who went back to work driving trucks for two and a half years.

Cases similar to that of Rubbermaid’s retirees have been cropping up across the country. “In the past two years, we’ve had about 100 formal disciplinary actions involving seniors,” says Mary Schapiro, the chief executive of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, which oversees U.S. securities firms.

In one high-profile case settled last summer, the National Association of Securities Dealers (FINRA’s predecessor) fined Citigroup Global Markets $3 million and ordered the company to pay $12.2 million to more than 200 former employees of BellSouth. The regulators said Citigroup had failed to adequately supervise brokers based in Charlotte, N.C., who used misleading sales materials — promising 12% annual returns — during dozens of seminars for BellSouth employees from 1994 to 2002. Instead, more than $12 million in former employees’ accounts evaporated during the 2000-02 bear market.

“These are people who were persuaded to take retirement early — who didn’t have to and probably shouldn’t have — based on these misrepresentations,” says James Shorris of FINRA’s enforcement division. Citigroup says it is “working on all fronts to prevent a similar situation from occurring again.”

Baby boomers nearing retirement, and their parents, make irresistible targets for this kind of scam. “When you’re looking at $16 trillion in retirement accounts changing hands in the next 15 to 20 years, that’s a big market share for anybody,” says Alabama Securities Commission Director Joseph Borg. In a sweep of “free lunch” financial seminars, the Securities and Exchange Commission found unethical business practices in nearly half. In addition to promises of over-the-top investment returns, the most common scams include Ponzi schemes and sales of unsuitable annuities.

Retirees are vulnerable because they’re looking for ways to stretch their income. Plus, many seniors are hesitant to ask questions, consult with their children or complain to regulators.

“A lot of people think they’ll lose their independence if they admit they were taken advantage of,” says Barry Lanier, the chief of the bureau of investigations for the Florida Department of Financial Services. When FINRA surveyed senior investors last year, only 56% of the victims who admitted being defrauded said they had reported the incident.

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Better Laptop Battery Liffe?

A Tenfold Improvement in Battery Life?

Stanford University researchers have made a discovery that could signal the arrival of laptop batteries that last more than a day on a single charge.

The researchers have found a way to use silicon nanowires to give rechargeable lithium ion batteries—used in laptops, iPods, video cameras, and mobile phones—as much as 10 times more charge. This potentially could give a conventional battery-powered laptop 40 hours of battery life, rather than four hours.

The new batteries were developed by assistant professor Yi Cui and colleagues at Stanford University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.