Don't let anyone criticize you for that glovebox full of duck sauce and Mickey D's(NYSE: MCD) ketchup -- it just might save your life.

That's what happened to Robert Ward when he crashed his truck into a tree the night of a snowstorm. Immobilized by a broken hip, Ward survived for nearly a week on melted snow and Taco Bell(NYSE: YUM) hot sauce.

"He said he had a lot of weird dreams while he was down there," said Ward's friend Terry Likens, captain of the fire department. Yeah, that happens to us after a Chalupa Supreme, too.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Bush Fills Slots, Feels Heat

President Bush has nominated former investment banker and New York Stock Exchange Chairman William Donaldson to replace Harvey Pitt as head of the SEC. Meanwhile, his expected appointment of former Goldman Sachs Chairman Stephen Friedman as chief economic advisor is now in doubt, due to some disgruntled conservative Republicans.

Donaldson co-founded the investment-banking firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 1959; served as head of the NYSE from 1990 to 1995; was chairman and CEO of the insurance company Aetna(NYSE: AET); and currently serves in the same role with Donaldson Enterprises, a private money-management firm. He is a Bush family friend who was a classmate and co-worker of former President Bush's uncle, Herbert Walker.

Meanwhile, Friedman, the president's choice to replace Lawrence Lindsey as White House economic advisor, is apparently unpopular in some Republican circles. One conservative group, the Club for Growth, called him a "deficit-phobic" who's not a big supporter of tax cuts. Despite such opposition, however, White House sources say Friedman is still likely to get the job.

Quote of Note

"The president seems to place a premium on someone who has a background, not only steeped in business, but with real practical experience. So, if he can find someone who ran a business and who has Wall Street experience and probably a deft political touch, they'll find his candidate." -- Tim Russert, Dec. 6, 2002 interview with MSNBC about Paul O'Neill's replacement.

Pension Plan in Danger?

Today the Bush administration proposed new rules that would allow employers to resume converting existing employee pension plans into controversial "cash-balance" pension plans.

In a cash-balance plan, workers build up retirement value evenly over the years (based on salary) rather than, in traditional plans, typically building greater pension value in later years of employment. While cash-balance plans help employees who work short amounts of time at many different employers, in the long run, these new plans can significantly decrease final retirement benefits.

From 1985 to 1999, an estimated 33% of Fortune 100 companies switched to cash-balance pension plans. In 1999, the right to convert to cash-balance plans was halted until the plans could be investigated. Now, within 90 days, conversion by employers could be allowed again.

Why did 33% of Fortune 100 companies switch to these new pension plans in relatively short order? Most say because it saves them money (large firms save as much as $100 million). If the cash-balance pension plan saves employers money, where do the savings come from? You got it. You. The employee.

Many argue cash-balance pension plans represent an "anti-worker movement." Do they? Well, they have been lobbied for by big-business interests since the 1999 freeze. And when money is saved, it has to come from somewhere. If your employer is suddenly saving more money, and it didn't cut nonemployee costs, then it's saving money on your back.

Read more about today's news, and then bookmark the Fool's retirement area and start learning. Nobody -- nobody -- will help you retire comfortably more than you can help yourself.

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Dreaming of a Virtual Christmas?

How much is that doggy in the pop-up window? That's what more shoppers are asking this holiday season.

To avoid the crowds, more consumers are bundling up and heading to the computer to browse for gifts in the glow of their monitors. According to a survey (commissioned by America Online) of 7,000 shoppers nationwide, 64% say they will spend more for gifts online than in previous years -- an average of $298 per shopper. Music and videos are the favored treats of the season.

But in particularly plugged-in environments, the online shopping phenomenon is more pronounced. In Miami, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn., for instance, shoppers will spend more electronically than Secret Santas in other parts of the states. San Franciscans shame them all, spending an average of nearly $400 online for holiday gifts.

If you're looking to avoid long lines at the Internet café, we have a few suggestions:

  • Fool Rick Munarriz offers four great tips to be a savvier e-shopper.
  • Instead of socks, how about giving stock ideas for Christmas? We've got you covered.
  • And finally, to satiate your charitable leanings, check out our Foolanthropy drive this year.

The 'Ax' in Maxtor

Let's try a little word association, shall we? Just snap back with the first thing that pops into your head.

Fourth and long?



Upbeat earnings outlook?
Layoff notices.

What was that last one? Right, you're thinking of Maxtor(NYSE: MXO), which announced better-than-expected fourth-quarter results, yet it will still reduce its workforce by 500 employees.

What's up with the mixed signals? The data-storage specialist is looking for fourth-quarter revenue to come in closer to $1 billion. Wall Street was looking for $966 million. Earnings before a series of one-time severance, stock compensation, and write-off charges will be at least a dime a share. Analysts were expecting the company to lose a nickel a share.

Despite the rosy outlook, the company still wants to trim its overhead. Eliminating 500 positions amounts to roughly 5% of its total job base. While that may seem like last-minute overkill, there's a reason behind Maxtor's madness.

Hard-disk makers don't get a whole lot of love in the financial community. The drives are considered low-margin commodities, and that's certainly a well-earned distinction. As optimistic as Maxtor is this quarter, it's still looking at pathetic gross margins in the 15% to 16% range.

While the computer industry has been stagnant, Maxtor is enjoying the transition to higher capacity 60-gig and 80-gig hard drives. You can probably thank your MP3 downloading teens for the need to migrate to larger storage devices. However, like all trends, technology gets cheaper, and the pricing advantages whittle away quickly in the drive space. Maxtor knows that even in good times, you have to be a shrewd operator because they are often short-lived.

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Quick Takes

Even mall operators are taking advantage of the holiday shopping season. Mills Corp.(NYSE: MLS) is in a buying mood, acquiring six different mall properties in a pair of transactions totaling $621 million. Mills expects the additions to boost its funds from operation (the standard REIT measure of earnings success) to as high as $3.65 per share next year.

Playboy (NYSE: PLA) is going flat, and there's nothing an airbrush can do about it. The adult-entertainment purveyor predicts flat fourth-quarter results due to lower license payments in its television business and higher costs in its entertainment group. Don't worry. The fiscal silicone is on order, as the company expects operating profits to double next year.

In news news, Tribune(NYSE: TRB) is looking for profits to grow in the low double-digits next year. The publishing and broadcasting specialist also hopes to close out the year on a strong note with robust advertising growth last month continuing into December. Sure, everyone expects newspapers to be loaded with ads over the holidays, but November's results came in 7% higher than the year before. That's welcome news to the entertainment and content providers that rely on a return of the sponsor dollar.

Coffee, tea, or double or nothing? Mesa Air(Nasdaq: MESA) employees have an interesting offer to consider. Those who choose to take a 5% pay cut will be rewarded with double that sum as a bonus for every quarter the air carrier posts a profit. Betting on any airline is a dicey situation, but Mesa has actually been profitable every quarter this past year.

If a satellite dish deal breaks down, do you have to go up to the roof to adjust for the poor reception? EchoStar(Nasdaq: DISH) will pay a hefty $600 million breakup fee for leaving Hughes Electronics(NYSE: GMH) at the altar. With regulatory opposition looking to possibly nix the union, it was a rocky courtship to begin with. So, what time's Divorce Court on again?

And Finally...

Today on Critics say index investing is a "dumb fad" and blast the S&P 500. Rex Moore disagrees.... Jeff Fischer takes a look at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, which is filing cancer drug Velcade for initial approval.... In Fool's School, why disability insurance can be more valuable than life insurance.... And the Post of the Day: How to minimize frictional costs.

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Jeff Fischer, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim