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"I wish I had a nickel for every time people have suggested that we do this." -- Steve Jobs, introducing Apple's first low-priced desktop, the $499 Mac mini

Richard Baker is no friend of Fannie Mae (FNM) -- or the Financial Accounting Standards Board. So a recent win for this representative (R-La.) in a Capitol Hill turf battle is sending a shiver down execs' spines at the mortgage giant -- and giving a lift to tech industry foes of stock-option expensing.

Baker chairs the capital markets subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee. That panel has just wrested jurisdiction for accounting issues -- including FASB oversight -- from the Energy & Commerce Committee.

The result: Baker gets a freer hand to try to thwart FASB's new rule requiring stock-option expensing. A Baker-sponsored bill passed the House last year but has stalled in the Senate. The bill would limit expensing to options granted to the top five execs and would exempt small companies.

Baker's new role also creates a tougher political landscape for Fannie, which has long used divide-and-conquer tactics to best its foes on the Hill. With Baker firmly in command of all the issues involved in Fannie's $9 billion earnings restatement, the mortgage giant's hot seat just got hotter.

Now that he wants to retire, Pierre Cardin, the legendary designer who brought haute couture to a women's ready-to-wear line, is discovering the disadvantage of marketing to the masses. Cardin, 82, has been trying since 2002 to sell his clothing and accessories business, which he values at $500 million. But big luxury-goods groups such as LVMH Mo?t Hennessy Louis Vuitton aren't biting.

These days, most luxury purveyors try to enhance their allure by controlling distribution -- so that, for example, Gucci is sold only at its boutiques and a few upscale retailers. Cardin, by contrast, has licensed his name to more than 800 products, even socks and pens. "This brand needs a huge cleanup," says a source at LVMH. "There's no way we'd buy it."

Even so, Cardin's licenses still drive sales worth $1.5 billion a year. Chinese manufacturers looking to add pizzazz to their apparel lines may be interested, speculates Milan luxury consultant Armando Branchini. Cardin's Paris office declined comment. But his Maxim's restaurant-and-hotel chain, also for sale, could itself fetch a few hundred million dollars. So Cardin needn't worry about retiring in luxury.

Globalization has another discontent: Margaret Atwood. The author of such novels as The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake says online book sales have created an impossible demand for name-brand authors to be promoting books in several places at once. "The book tour has turned into a global black hole of energy that ruins you," says the 63-year-old writer.

Atwood has a solution: a gizmo that allows authors to autograph books from afar. The contraption combines a Webcam, a tablet PC, and a robot arm that can hold any pen desired. Fans could go to a bookstore where the machine is in place, describe the desired inscription directly to the author through video ("Please write: 'To Mary, Happy Birthday, Margaret Atwood' "), watch as the author jots it out on her tablet PC -- and see the robot arm duplicate the personalized message.

Atwood stresses that the device is still in the development phase. A prototype, which she put together along with some techie friends, was shown to a recent gathering of about 60 publishing execs. The prototype uses a writing arm similar to an architectural plotter to sign books. Atwood hopes to have an improved model that uses a robotic arm available for a fall demo.

Ultimately she expects a coalition of financial backers, perhaps including publishers, and someone "who's more business-oriented than I" to run her newly formed company, Unotchit.

The apparatus should work to autograph a variety of products, Atwood notes: books, CD jackets, and T-shirts. But it may not be all-purpose. "I was once asked to autograph a belly," she muses. "I don't think it will work on bellies."

Of all the foldable things -- snack tables, lawn chairs, fans -- a boat isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind. But last year, Sandy Kaye, owner of Porta-Bote in Mountain View, Calif., sold nearly 10,000 dinghy-size boats for up to $1,600 each. The boat folds to four inches in height and is made from a resin developed by NASA that gets stronger with each folding. With its flat design, the Porta-Bote fits on the side of an RV, the hull of a larger boat -- even on a yak. Britain's Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service strapped it on to the scruffy animal for a trek up Mt. Everest and used it to cross a lake. The Porta-Bote may be the first vessel sailed 20,000 feet above sea level.

IHOP (IHP), the $400 million pancake chain, already owns a tall stack of America's breakfast business. Now it wants to gobble up more dinner dollars. On Jan. 13, CEO Julia Stewart unveiled the prototype for a new IHOP. The familiar blue A-frame roof remains, but there are also touches more conducive to evening dining, including softer lighting and new menu items such as portobello pot roast and charbroiled Atlantic salmon. The changes roll out to nearly 1,200 restaurants this spring. "We've been working on this for more than a year," she says.

Stewart, 49, worked as an IHOP waitress in high school in San Diego. She joined the company, based in Glendale, Calif., three years ago from Applebee's International, where she ran the U.S. unit. Stewart has shifted IHOP's business model from company financing of new stores to franchises only -- and sales, stock price, and restaurant count have climbed steadily since. Looks as if she has found the right mix.

An average American gains seven pounds from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and nearly 40% of us make losing weight our New Year's resolution, according to various polls. Yet a Jan. 4 study by the University of Pennsylvania found that most diet programs don't work. What are dieters to do?

You might want to try one of the dozens of products that wed two obsessions: dieting and gadgets. From lard-zapping ovens to caloric breath analyzers, here's a sample of the new weapons in the battle of the bulge. Be advised: Many of these have yet to be proved effective.

-- The Powerseed is like an electronic version of a watchful mom. The size and shape of an egg, it sits on the table and blinks every 30 seconds. That indicates that it's O.K. to take another bite, the idea being to eat more slowly and avoid overeating. Inventor Bill Curry has sold 1,000 units online for $49.95 each.

-- This summer, Sharp Electronics (SHCAY) will unveil an oven it claims can reduce the fat content in food by turning water into steam heated to 500F. A combo of steam and heat cooks food and melts fat without losing moisture. Sharp says the oven is selling well in Japan and will cost $1,399 in the U.S.

-- HealtheTech in Golden, Colo., sells the $179 BodyGem. The size of a soda can, it lets you breathe into a mouthpiece. Then sensors figure out your oxygen intake and your resting calorie-burning rate. Users can determine how many calories they can eat a day and how much they need to exercise to lose weight.

Property in the U.S. seems to have lost some luster for foreign investors. An Asso- ciation of Foreign Investors in Real Estate survey of its 66 member firms -- mostly European -- shows that they expect to reduce new U.S. acquisitions from $667 million, or 71% of their total portfolio, to $661 million in 2005, or just 55% of their yearly investments.

The main reason: It's tough to find good deals in the U.S., especially relative to emerging markets such as Eastern Europe. But Washington topped the survey as the favorite U.S. city in which to invest. Why? The thesis is simple: Growing government will boost demand for space.


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