Home Depot builds investors a buyback dream home

Home Depot employee helps a customer as she shops in the paint department at the store in Miami.

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Home Depot employee helps a customer as she shops in the paint department at the store in Miami.

Home Depot might be the quintessential American stock of this market cycle, exemplifying many of the crucial themes that investors have come to rely on.

The home improvement retailer in the past several years has curtailed its ambitions, refused to expand the chain, defended high profit margins, tallied more sales from its core domestic customers and bought back an enormous portion of its shares.

It’s all worked extremely well for Home Depot and its shareholders, who have enjoyed a 240 percent surge in the stock price over the past five years, versus approximately 45 percent for the S&P 500 and 72 percent for the SPDR S&P Retail sector ETF. Tuesday’s fourth-quarter earnings report showed all these trends clicking yet again with brisk comparable-store sales growth of 7.1 percent and a per-share earnings increase of 11.4 percent.

Yet in some respects, Home Depot is an exceptional case, demonstrating how rare it is for a company to combine generous buybacks, financial discipline and strong top-line growth.
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Eye lens regeneration from own stem cells: ‘a paradigm shift in cataract surgery’

The researchers – including teams from the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and Sichuan University, both in China – describe their new regenerative medicine approach in a paper published in the journal Nature.

The treatment was tested in 12 babies born with cataracts. It resulted in significantly fewer surgical complications than current treatments, say the researchers. Sight was improved in all 12 patients.

One of the study leaders, Kang Zhang, a professor of ophthalmology and chief of Ophthalmic Genetics at UCSD, says:

“We believe that our new approach will result in a paradigm shift in cataract surgery and may offer patients a safer and better treatment option in the future.”

Being born with a lens that is cloudy or shortly becomes so is rare, but it is a significant cause of blindness in children. Estimates suggest it affects around 3 out of 10,000 children, although this rate varies throughout the world.

The clouded lens stops light getting to the retina, resulting in significant loss of vision. Current treatments can be difficult and result in complications in very young patients. Most children need to wear glasses after cataract surgery.

Method uses stem cells in the eyes to grow new lens

In the new study, the team used the ability of stem cells to grow new tissue. They did not use the more common approach – where stem cells are taken out of the patient, grown in the lab and then put back in the patient. This method can introduce disease and raise the risk of immune rejection.

Instead, the team coaxed stem cells in the patients’ eyes to regrow the lenses. So-called endogenous stem cells are stem cells that are naturally already in place, ready to regenerate new tissue in the case of injury or some other problem.

In the case of the human eye, the endogenous stem cells – known as lens epithelial stem cells (LECs) – generate replacement lens cells throughout a person’s life, although production wanes with age.

Current approaches to cataract surgery remove LECs along with the faulty lens – any few that are left can generate some lens cells, but the growth is random and disorganized in infants, resulting in no useful vision, note the researchers.

The approach the researchers describe in their paper has two important differences to conventional cataract surgery: it leaves the lens capsule intact, and it stimulates LECs to form a new lens. The lens capsule is a thin membrane that helps give the lens its required shape to function.

The regenerative power of the body

The researchers first tested the method in rabbits and macaques and showed it allowed LECs that stayed in the eye to regenerate functional lenses.

The researchers then ran a small human trial in patients under the age of 2. Twelve infants were treated with the new approach, while 25 other babies received the standard cataract procedure.

The patients treated with the new approach had fewer complications and healed faster than the group treated with the standard approach. After 3 months, all the operated eyes had regrown a new lens curved on both sides (biconvex).

The children who received standard surgery had a higher rate of post-surgery inflammation, developed high pressure in the eye and increased lens clouding, note the researchers.

Prof. Zhang says the ultimate goal of stem cell research is to treat patients using their own stem cells. He concludes:

“The success of this work represents a new approach in how new human tissue or organ can be regenerated and human disease can be treated, and may have a broad impact on regenerative therapies by harnessing the regenerative power of our own body.”

He and his colleagues plan to extend their findings to treat the sort of cataracts that develop in older people. One of the challenges they will face is how to make stem cells more productive, because they become less active with age.

Age-related cataracts is the leading cause of blindness around the world. In the US, over 20 million people are living with the condition, and over 4 million cataracts are removed every year in operations that replace the clouded lens with a plastic one. However, while new technology has much improved cataract replacement surgery, many patients still need to wear glasses for driving or reading.

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned of a study that used stem cells to generate viable sperm in mice that led to live offspring, raising hope of new treatments for male infertility.
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Meet Hound, a hands-free virtual assistant that’s smarter and faster than Siri

hound primary

SoundHound is best known for its music recognition app, which listens to songs and identifies them, in the same vein as Shazam. But for the last nine years, the company has been working on a virtual assistant to rival Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. That app, called Hound, on Tuesday emerged from private beta on iOS and Android with data from 150 sources, including Yelp and Uber.

How it works: Open the app and either tap the microphone to ask Hound a question or just say, “OK Hound.” Then speak naturally. Hound serves up basic information like weather forecasts and what businesses are nearby, but can also tell you how far away the nearest Uber is and how much the price is surging by, calculate a mortgage for you, and tell you what hotel room rates at a pet-friendly resort with a gym will be months down the line. The answers come with lightning quickness, faster than any voice assistant I’ve ever encountered. You can ask follow-up questions to further narrow results:

hound iosHOUND
Hound for iOS is fast and mostly accurate, though not perfect.

“Show me coffee shops in SoHo, except Starbucks, that are open right now and serve food.” “Just the highest-rated ones.”

(That search turned up Doughnut Plant, which was so on point, though not exactly in SoHo—it’s on the Lower East Side.)

Hound has to be fast. The app is at a disadvantage because it doesn’t ship with devices by default, and can’t be used across iOS or Android without being opened first.

So why bother using Hound if you already have a virtual assistant baked in at the OS level? The AI that powers other virtual assistants translates voice to text and then text to meaning. But Hound skips the middle step faster than anyone else, translating voice to meaning quickly and with more complex queries than Siri or Google Now. That’s why it took so long to develop, SoundHound founder and CEO Keyvan Mohajer said during a demo at Macworld’s New York office.

During the demo, Hound answered queries without a hiccup for Mohajer, though my own searches weren’t quite as seamless when I tested a beta version of the iOS app. When I tried to narrow a search for restaurants in Manhattan’s Theatre District down to “more affordable” options, the app pointed me to Moore, a town in the middle of nowhere.

Siri might be more convenient to use, especially with Apple’s own services, like Mail, Calendar, and iMessage. But you also have to perform vocal gymnastics just to get Apple’s assistant to understand what you’re asking for, and the results are much slower than Hound’s. It wouldn’t surprise me if the app is acquired by one of the tech giants for its technology, which is both reliable and accurate for hands-free searches, in order to make their own personal assistants better.
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Ford EcoSport gets cheaper by more than a lakh

Ford EcoSport gets cheaper by more than a lakh

The Ford EcoSport is cheaper now. Ford has announced a price cut for their most popular SUV, the EcoSport. Launched in 2013, the EcoSport had received a mid-life update at the end of 2015. The price cut seems to be largely inspired by the pricing offensive offered by its latest and prime competitor, the Maruti Suzuki Vitara Brezza.

Ford EcoSport was the first sub-four-metre compact SUV in the Indian market and enjoyed its position as the market leader for quite some time. The crossover SUV is now cheaper by almost Rs 54,000 (ex-showroom, Delhi) for the entry-level manual transmission petrol Ambiente trim. The Trend petrol is cheaper by almost Rs 78,000. The cars with the EcoBoost engines now are cheaper by Rs 78,000 and Rs 87,000 for the Trend+ and Titanium+ variants while the petrol automatic gets a price cut of Rs 75,000.

The diesel variants of the EcoSport have been much more popular and get the biggest price cuts to pitch them fairly against the Maruti. The top-spec Titanium+ at Rs 9.75 lakh is cheaper by Rs 1.12 lakh with the new price tag coming under Rs 10 lakh. The Titanium diesel price is down again by Rs 1.12 lakh while the entry-level Ambiente introduces you to the EcoSport at Rs 7.29 lakh.

The top-spec EcoSport offers revised headlamps with LED DRLs, rain-sensing wipers and auto-dimming internal rear-view mirror apart from the features offered with the older car. It is offered with three engine options – the 1.5-litre naturally aspirated four cylinder petrol engine, the 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel and the 1.0-litre three cylinder turbo-petrol EcoBoost engine. With the price cut, the EcoSport with its 2016 model year update will be better equipped to take on the just launched Vitara Brezza and also the Mahindra TUV300.

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Waze update adds cleaner interface and a grab bag of new features

waze android update

Waze has announced a number of interface improvements and new features are on their way to the Android app.

The 4.0 update will finally bring parity to the iOS version with a refreshed UI, quicker access to key features, and improved alerts for all those road hazards.

The notification experience looks improved, with a promise of more rapid updates that are easier to spot at a glance. While the visual overhaul isn’t in keeping with Material Design (which is a little strange since Google owns Waze) it is nonetheless easier on the eyes and makes key capabilities stand out.

The update isn’t here yet, but Waze promises it will soon arrive in the Google Play Store. We’ll be sure to let you know once it’s here.

Why this matters: Waze is a great travel aide because of its reliance on crowdsourced traffic data. I’ve found in navigating large, urban areas like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area that it can weave through out-of-the-way streets to more quickly get to a destination when the main routes are jammed. Since Waze is under the Google umbrella, I also expect more integration with Maps and for the Android app to start getting the goods at the same time as the iOS app.

[“source -cncb”]

A vexing question for Watson: Why is IBM surging?

A sign marks the entrance to IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York.

Here’s a vexing question for artificial mega-brain Watson: Why is IBM stock surging?

Big Blue’s market value rose about $6 billion after the computer giant agreed on Thursday to buy Truven Health Analytics for $2.6 billion. Giving IBM’s artificial-intelligence platform more data to chew on is useful, but investors’ glee over an opaque addition to an enigmatic business effort is confusing.

Big Blue’s top line has been shrinking steadily for nearly four years. In the fourth quarter of 2015, all major divisions had declining sales, with overall revenue falling 8.5 percent compared with the same period a year earlier. Clients need less of IBM’s hardware, and its software and consulting businesses are faltering in competition with rivals’ cloud-based versions.

The upshot is a falling share price. It has dropped about 25 percent in the past four years, while the S&P 500 has risen about 40 percent

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Pluck hair in a specific pattern to grow new hair: Hair six times thicker in mice

Quorum sensing in hair population regeneration is shown.
Credit: Courtesy of Cheng-Ming Chuong

If there’s a cure for male pattern baldness, it might hurt a little. A team led by USC Stem Cell Principal Investigator Cheng-Ming Chuong has demonstrated that by plucking 200 hairs in a specific pattern and density, they can induce up to 1,200 replacement hairs to grow in a mouse. These results are published in the April 9 edition of the journal Cell.

“It is a good example of how basic research can lead to a work with potential translational value,” said Chuong, who is a professor of pathology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “The work leads to potential new targets for treating alopecia, a form of hair loss.”

The study began a couple of years ago when first author and visiting scholar Chih-Chiang Chen arrived at USC from National Yang-Ming University and Veterans General Hospital, Taiwan. As a dermatologist, Chen knew that hair follicle injury affects its adjacent environment, and the Chuong lab had already established that this environment in turn can influence hair regeneration. Based on this combined knowledge, they reasoned that they might be able to use the environment to activate more follicles.

To test this concept, Chen devised an elegant strategy to pluck 200 hair follicles, one by one, in different configurations on the back of a mouse. When plucking the hairs in a low-density pattern from an area exceeding six millimeters in diameter, no hairs regenerated. However, higher-density plucking from circular areas with diameters between three and five millimeters triggered the regeneration of between 450 and 1,300 hairs, including ones outside of the plucked region.

Working with Arthur D. Lander from the University of California, Irvine, the team showed that this regenerative process relies on the principle of “quorum sensing,” which defines how a system responds to stimuli that affect some, but not all members. In this case, quorum sensing underlies how the hair follicle system responds to the plucking of some, but not all ]hairs.

Through molecular analyses, the team showed that these plucked follicles signal distress by releasing inflammatory proteins, which recruit immune cells to rush to the site of the injury. These immune cells then secrete signaling molecules such as tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), which, at a certain concentration, communicate to both plucked and unplucked follicles that it’s time to grow hair.

“The implication of the work is that parallel processes may also exist in the physiological or pathogenic processes of other organs, although they are not as easily observed as hair regeneration,” said Chuong.

[“source -pcworld”

A new algorithm from MIT could protect ships from ‘rogue waves’ at sea

mit rogue waves

Predictive analytics can already help prevent churn and anticipate equipment failures, but MIT has applied it to a new realm altogether: protecting ships at sea from so-called “rogue waves.”

Also known as killer waves, rogue waves swell up seemingly out of nowhere and can be eight times higher than the surrounding sea. They can strike in otherwise calm waters with virtually no warning, causing untold devastation even to large ships and ocean liners.

Now, MIT has developed a predictive tool it says can give ships and their crews a two- to three-minute advanced warning, allowing them to shut down essential operations on a ship or offshore platform.

In the past, scientists have approached the problem by trying to simulate every individual wave in a body of water to produce a high-resolution picture of the sea state. It’s proven computationally expensive and time-consuming.

In this case, the MIT researchers took a different tack based on their observation that waves sometimes cluster together in a group, rolling through the ocean together. Certain wave groups, they found, end up “focusing” or exchanging energy in a way that eventually leads to a rogue wave.

“These waves really talk to each other,” said Themis Sapsis, the American Bureau of Shipping Career Development assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “They interact and exchange energy. It’s not just bad luck. It’s the dynamics that create this phenomenon.”

Combining ocean-wave data available from measurements taken by ocean buoys with a nonlinear analysis of the underlying water wave equations, Sapsis’ team quantified the range of wave possibilities for a given body of water. They then developed a simpler and faster way to predict which wave groups will evolve into rogue waves.

The resulting tool is based on an algorithm that sifts through data from surrounding waves. Depending on a wave group’s length and height, the algorithm computes a probability that the group will turn into a rogue wave within the next few minutes.

“It’s precise in the sense that it’s telling us very accurately the location and the time that this rare event will happen,” Sapsis said. “We have a range of possibilities, and we can say that this will be a dangerous wave, and you’d better do something.”

A paper describing the tool was published this week in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.

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Mortgage rates could cross a record low

Who knew? The Federal Reserve raised its funds rate barely two months ago, and all that worry about higher interest rates for mortgage borrowers ended up being positively unwarranted. The average rate on the popular 30-year fixed mortgage began a free fall, reacting to financial markets overseas rather than monetary policy here at home.

“Mortgage rates are going down again, and it’s good for borrowers, but is it really good for the housing market and the broader economy? The answer is no,” said Guy Cecala, CEO and publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance.

Mortgage rates are falling because investors are flooding the U.S. bond market. Mortgage rates follow the yield on bonds that loosely follow the 10-year Treasury. Investors are buying bonds as a safety play in a highly volatile and largely negative stock market. Signs of weakness in the U.S. economy, in addition to trouble in overseas markets, pushed the yield on the 10-year Treasury to its lowest level since 2012, and mortgage rates followed south.

Falling mortgage rates

Olena Timashova | Getty Images

“If stocks are selling, and if people are generally pretty panicked about the state of the global economy, bond markets are a natural safe haven,” said Matthew Graham, chief operating officer of Mortgage News Daily. “Popular opinion about rates moving higher only helped. Too many people were on one side of that trade, and it almost always makes sense to root for the underdog in those scenarios.”

Lower mortgage rates certainly offer homebuyers lower monthly payments and at the same time help them to qualify for larger loans, so they can buy more expensive homes. The latter is particularly pertinent this spring, as home prices are rising due to record low supply of homes for sale. On the flip side, a weaker economy, stock market losses and general unease about the fate of employment and wage growth all hurt housing.

“Frankly, a healthier economy would be mortgage rates in the 5 percent range, but that’s also assuming you could get 2 percent in your checking account,” Cecala said.

Read MoreWhat negative rates mean for average investors

Now not only are mortgage rates nearing their record lows set in 2012, there is new talk of the Federal Reserve moving to a negative interest rate policy. Fed Chair Janet Yellen said Thursday it was not out of the realm of possibility.

This would not, however, translate to negative mortgage rates. That is impossible. Lenders only lend if they can make money.

“As far as the connection to mortgage rates, it’s no different than it was,” said Graham. “The Fed rate is only loosely connected over longer time horizons. Whether the Fed hikes or cuts below zero, the global economic panic will be good for rates.”

It could, however, push rates into the 2 percent range, which would have a significant impact on borrowers. It would help those on the low end but could hurt jumbo loan borrowers. Banks, which generally hold these larger loans on their own books, would not want to lend in that environment,

“We would go back to a situation where conforming government mortgages are considerably cheaper than private jumbo,” said Cecala. “All you’re doing is asking them [banks] to shrink their margin and get nothing in return because there is no way to lower their cost of funds from 0 to 0.”

Cecala does not expect the Fed to move rates lower. He cites the fact that the nation went through one of the worst recessions in history, and the Fed never moved below zero. The bigger issue is that most lenders have stopped hedging for rate drops, so, Cecala added, “It may to cause a lot of losses and shake up things.”

[“source -pcworld”]

Steam debuts a VR performance-check utility for PCs ahead of HTC Vive rollout


The SteamVR-powered HTC Vive virtual reality headset is officially up for preorder on February 29 , and Valve wants to help make sure your PC is ready for it. Valve recently published a free program on Steam called the SteamVR Performance Test that will automatically check your system specs to see if they make the grade for Steam’s virtual reality platform. Oculus VR published a similar tool for the Rift in January.

Valve’s tool analyzes your PC by having it run a two-minute sequence from Valve’s Aperture Robot Repair VR demo. The test is specifically looking at your system’s ability to hit 90 frames per second and its visual fidelity for VR.

Once the VR check is finished, the program gives you a simple color-coded report detailing what will and won’t work with SteamVR. If your graphics card is up to snuff but your processor isn’t, for example, the program will let you know that. Like most Steam-related downloads, Performance Test is only available through the Steam store.

Funnily enough, however, you may not even need to download the program as the recommended specs for Performance Test appear to detail what you need to run SteamVR. Those minimum specs include an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or an AMD R9 290 (or greater) for the graphics card. On the processor side, you’ll need at least a quad-core 3.3GHz Intel Haswell Core i5-4590 or the 4GHz AMD FX-8350 based on the Piledriver architecture. You’ll also need 4GB of RAM and Windows 7 SP1 or newer.

The impact on you: Whether you can get away with lower specs than those above is unclear, and we didn’t get a chance to test the new software. Even if you could get away with lower specs, you probably wouldn’t want to. A lower-grade system probably can’t maintain the higher frame rate that virtual reality requires—the aforementioned 90 frames per second. With performance any lower than that, motion sickness is almost inevitable due to intermittent lag (choppy video).

If your PC does meet the recommended specs, you should probably run Performance Test anyway just to be sure everything is up to snuff—especially if you plan on preordering a Vive on Sunday.

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