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"Essentially, the judge is holding a gun to RIM's head to settle." -- Analyst Richard Williams, to Bloomberg, on a judge's ruling against BlackBerry maker Research In Motion

Householders, shocked by heating costs, are flocking to an alternative source: wood-pellet stoves. But as stove demand surges, the condensed sawdust pellets that serve as fuel are getting hard to find. That has pellet prices soaring faster than costs for the fossil fuel they're supposed to replace.

Many see pellet stoves as a way to fight back against a 50% rise in natural gas prices. Pellets, recycled from lumber, burn cleaner than traditional wood stoves and cheaper than gas or oil. Home Depot (HD) says it has sold more pellet stoves in the past two months than in all of last year. But that has created a run on pellets. As a result, some stores are restricting sales: The Best Fireplace Co. in Oak Creek, Wis., sells pellets only with a stove purchase. Pellet hunters complain of paying $6.75 per 40-pound bag in Massachusetts and $8 on Long Island, N.Y. -- twice the usual price.

Posts on TreeHugger.com decry the pellet scarcity, with one irate customer threatening to return his stove if he couldn't find some soon. "Mills are running 24/7" to catch up with demand, says Don Kaiser, executive director of the Pellet Fuels Institute. Until then, you know the drill: Get in line.

Traditional retailers have their Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when shoppers hit the malls in droves. Now online retailers have Cyber Monday, when people return to work to shop online courtesy of their company's high-speed connection. Or so the story goes. But it turns out Cyber Monday isn't so special after all. The first big spike in online shopping traffic comes days before Thanksgiving. And the post-holiday Monday actually ranks only about 12th on the list of biggest days of the online season.

So what's up with Cyber Monday? Credit savvy marketing by the online retail association Shop.org, which coined the term in a Nov. 21 press release. It's not entirely a myth: Some retailers do see a traffic spike on the Monday following Thanksgiving. But the hype may be helping. Monday sales at Web jeweler Ice.com jumped 92% above last year's level -- thanks in part to a sold-out sale it headlined "Cyber Monday Blowout."

Those probes and reforms pushed by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Securities & Exchange Commission finally may be having an effect on mutual funds. Their boards are supposed to represent fund shareholders, not management companies. But in almost every case over the past 65 years, boards have stuck with current management when it came time to review contracts. Critics grumble that when one set of managers leaves, the job -- and its rich fee stream -- is passed along to another set at the same firm.

So when independent directors of the $7 billion Clipper Fund said in October they were looking for a new manager, the fund world yawned. Old Mutual, owner of the value fund's manager, even said it had a successor lined up. But the industry snapped to attention on Nov. 30, when the Clipper board said it was dumping Old Mutual's Pacific Financial Research in favor of a highly regarded outsider, Davis Selected Advisers LP.

The process was set in motion when Clipper founder James Gipson announced that his team would leave Pacific at year end. Gipson's performance was stellar for much of the past 10 years, beating 98% of similar funds, according to Morningstar. But recently it stumbled; the fund is down 1% in 2005, trailing its group average by almost 9 points.

Michael Glazer, a lawyer representing Clipper directors, says the biggest factor in choosing new managers Christopher Davis and Kenneth Feinberg was that their style at the Davis New York Venture Fund was similar to Gipson's -- focusing on a few undervalued stocks. But the Davis fund has gained nearly 11% this year. For Clipper shareholders, it also helps that Davis and Feinberg plan to lower investment advisory fees and waive management fees in excess of 0.5%.

There's a new pro player in town, and it might be your mom. Next summer, "casual gaming" site SkillJam.com will offer $1 million to the best player in video games such as solitaire, Bejeweled 2 (line up colored cubes to win points), and Zuma (zap balls out of a frog's mouth). These are favored by older players, such as soccer moms hiding out in the den. SkillJam President Paul Jensen says 13 players (including some guys) have qualified so far in tournaments costing as little as $2.50 to enter. The action may not be as intense as the shooter-dominated Cyberathlete Professional League. Still, $1 million could buy one sweet minivan.

Richard Clark, Merck & Co.'s (MRK) new chief executive, has made his first move -- and Wall Street isn't impressed. Clark, 59, announced on Nov. 28 the first phase of what he calls a global restructuring that will cut 7,000 jobs -- 11% of the drugmaker's workforce -- and five factories. The overhaul aims to save $4 billion through 2010. But Merck's stock fell 4.6%, to 29.56, on the news -- capping a 66% fall over the past five years.

The lack of enthusiasm isn't hard to fathom. For one thing, $4 billion was less than what many analysts expected. And Clark, who ran manufacturing at Merck before replacing CEO Raymond Gilmartin last May, has yet to show he has a fix for a weak product pipeline and the likely multibillion-dollar liability from lawsuits Merck faces over its withdrawn painkiller, Vioxx. True, rivals like Pfizer (PFE) also are struggling to generate growth. But investors will be watching Clark's Dec. 15 analyst presentation to see if he has any more answers.

More than 2,000 sophisticated investors get daily market commentary from a cartoon bull named Hoofy. He's one of several characters dreamed up by Todd Harrison, a former hedge-fund manager who in 2002 created the investor education Web site Minyanville.com. Boo the bear supplies healthy skepticism. In addition, Snapper the turtle appears during snapback rallies. Don't be fooled: Harrison enlisted seasoned investors to write for him, including hedge-fund manager John Succo and options specialist Jon "Dr. J." Najarian.

Even a cartoon bull or bear would have a tough time cutting through the post-boom skepticism of investors. "These guys have a tough row to hoe," says Forrester Research (FORR) analyst Bill Doyle, citing struggles at other paid investing sites such as TheStreet.com.

Nevertheless, a redesigned Minyanville is set to appear by January, adding more accessible content in a bid for a broader audience. The site has drawn a cult following of unusually loyal readers. They recently presented Minyanville with an electric guitar signed by Warren Buffett, George Soros, Bill Gross, and other investing legends. It will be auctioned off for charity during the period Dec. 7-16.

In China these days, the Eightfold Path may have more to do with finding business acumen than enlightenment -- at least that's the case for about a dozen Buddhist monks taking MBA classes this fall at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

Growing incomes in China have translated into larger donations to temples that survived the Cultural Revolution, requiring more financial expertise among their monks. That includes the century-old Jade Buddha Temple, one of the largest in Shanghai. It's run by 35-year-old Master Abbot Jue Xing, who sent his monks off to study temple management in a nondegree training course that includes studies of accounting, corporate strategy, religious-product marketing, and Sun Tzu's Art of War, according to Chen Changhui of the Shanghai Jiaotong School of Management. The abbot also presided over the temple's launch of a Web site and computerized its operations.


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