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Jetsons future

Business | For robots and flying cars, the future is now

Issue: "Senate wars over judges," May 14, 2005

In the 1970s, it seemed that flying cars and robot housekeepers were the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. But apparently some people were watching The Jetsons cartoon for ideas instead of laughs.

Tokyo-based KMP Inc. says it is the first company to mass-produce humanoids, or human-shaped robots, for the home. Their 15-inch tall robot, called nuvo, is on sale in Japan for $5,450. With a digital camera enclosed, nuvo can take pictures on demand and transmit images through a videophone so that owners can see what is going on in their home.

And those "flying cars" just may turn out to be personal airplanes. The General Aviation Manufacturing Association reports the number of piston-engine, propeller planes has tripled in the past decade. Oregon-based airplane manufacturer Lancair Co. says it expects to double the number of planes it sells this year.

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"It used to be that you had to do a geometry exercise to navigate a plane," said Lance Neibauer, the founder of Lancair Co. Today's small planes, however, have a "glass cockpit," the system of computerized displays and controls that makes pilots' lives much easier.

Down on the farm

While diversification is a key consideration for individual investors, it is also an important concept for business owners-even farmers-to keep in mind.

In an era of carb-conscious consumers and a new focus on curbing obesity, the fast-food industry is in the middle of a dramatic transformation that has had rippling effects for many of its suppliers.

In Idaho, a decision by McDonald's to phase out its super-size value meals has exacerbated an already difficult situation for the state's potato growers. In recent years, overproduction has resulted in a surplus. The trifecta of lower prices, severe drought, and fewer French fries sold has caused many farmers to forgo planting this spring.

On the flip side, apple producers in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington are cashing in on McDonald's and other fast-food franchises' decision to add healthier fare to their menus.

Last June, McDonald's began offering apple slices with a caramel dipping sauce. Now the company is preparing to roll out a new salad, featuring apples, walnuts, and grapes. McDonald's officials say they expect to purchase about 54 million pounds of apples each year for the two menu items.

"Obviously, it's a big boon," said Dave Carlson, president of the Washington Apple Commission.

Balance Sheet

· To ensure Berkshire Hathaway's success after his death, 74-year-old investment wizard Warren Buffett added fellow billionaire Bill Gates to the company's board. Messrs. Gates and Buffett, the world's two richest people, have been friends since 1991.

· Circulation fell 1.9 percent at major U.S. newspapers in the six-month period ending in March, marking one of the worst declines in recent years. Among the major papers with significant declines in circulation were the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Times.

· Qwest dropped out of its bidding war with Verizon for MCI Inc. after MCI rejected a higher-priced bid from Qwest for the fourth time. Verizon's final offer was $8.5 billion or $26 per share. Qwest had offered $30 a share in cash and stock.

· Texas Pacific Group and Warburg Pincus plan to purchase the Neiman Marcus Group Inc., which includes a chain of 37 luxury department stores, for about $5 billion. In addition to its stores, Neiman Marcus is well-known for its annual Christmas catalog, which included among its offerings last year a $10 million zeppelin, a $1.7 million winged submarine, and jeweled Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head figurines at $8,000 apiece.

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